In a workshop this fall in NYC,
I was teaching a group of women how to stand up to men whose behavior was on the inappropriate spectrum, from sexual harassment to sexual coercion to sexual assault.
I had the women paired up, role-playing situations like:
- “you go out with your work friend and get a few drinks and he keeps dropping escalating hints that you guys should hook up but you’re not interested,”
- and “at the end of a date the guy is trying to guilt you into staying out longer or coming to his apartment,”
- and “your boss makes a joke or comment about your body.”
Each woman was given the task of letting the guy know, clearly and non-ambiguously, that she either wasn’t interested, didn’t like feeling pressured, or wanted the behavior to stop.
This was extremely difficult, and there was a LOT of giggling in the room.
There was also a lot of pitched-up “sugar-coated” vocal tones, apologetic body language, smiles, and a general sense of “letting him down easy” and trying not to hurt his feelings.
When I asked some of the women about why they were giggling, they said because they were really uncomfortable.
Which is when we stumbled into something powerful.
I explained that the rising up energy of a giggle is actually intended for something else; it’s an impulse with a purpose. Due to social conditioning however (aka how women are taught to never make people uncomfortable, and never bruise a man’s ego), these women had taught themselves to divert that impulse energy into a non-threatening place.
Enter: uncomfortable laughter.
When we explored the impulse underneath the laughter, and let it be expressed in its fullness instead of diverted and filtered and sugar-coated, shit got real.
One woman who was giggling a lot said she didn’t know what to say to her partner, who was role-playing a guy in the office being juuust borderline inappropriate. I asked her what the non-sugar-coated truth was, what she would say if she didn’t need to protect his feeling.
She said in a quiet voice “I want to tell him he’s creeping me out.”
“Great,” I said. “Try it.”
Suddenly, there were no giggles, and no pretense. She didn’t put on airs or act tough, but she also didn’t shrink or hide. Her partner made a comment on her body, and she responded, calmly and in her natural full voice, “that comment felt creepy.”
You could feel the whole room gently gasp. What a powerful, honest, TRUE thing to say. It seemed almost too simple.
When I asked her how that felt she said it felt weirdly… easy. Once she identified what the giggle was covering up, and what the true impulse was, telling her partner the truth just felt simple.
Another woman was struggling to let the impulse out in a role play situation in which her partner was acting out the part of a friend who was “playfully” pressuring her to “just try” hooking up with him. She was sending him non-verbals like eye rolls and saying things in a playful voice like “yeah dude… not gonna happen,” with a smile.
When I asked her why she had pitched her voice up and smiled as she kept turning him down, she said “because we’re friends and I don’t want to make it weird!”
“But he’s the one making it weird,” I responded. “He made it weird when he ignored your first response, and body language, and started guilting you. That discomfort you feel right now actually belongs to HIM.
“Try it again, but this time, refuse to hold onto his discomfort for him.”
So she tried it again, and as her partner began making “jokes” about hooking up, this time she responded without a smile. “I just wanted to have a good time tonight, but you’re making it weird.”
Again, the simplicity, the ease, the natural timber of her voice and relaxation of her body language told us that we had landed in the right spot.
Women are conditioned to sugar coat, to protect other people’s feelings and to hold onto the discomfort that belongs to everyone else so as not to “make them” feel it. In this way, we teach people that they don’t have to deal with the uncomfortable consequences of their own behaviors, because we’ll do it for them.
We pitch our voices up and smile to smooth over the sharp edges of our boundaries, we apologize with our bodies for things that other people have done wrong, and whenever we feel an impulse to set someone right we divert it into something non-threatening, like laughter.
But when you dig below the surface of that sugar coating and uncomfortable laugher, there is always a true, authentic, reasonable impulse.
That impulse is your body’s way of telling you what to do; it’s information from your highest self.
If you let that impulse out, you will set boundaries from a place of simplicity, kindness, and truth. If you stifle that impulse, your boundaries will be violated over and over until you’re forced to set boundaries from a place of anger, coldness, hurt feelings, and possibly even retribution.
How tuned into your authentic impulses are you? How often do you run those impulses through a million filters, adding a candy shell coating before expressing the barest whisper of them into the world? How often do you agree to hold other people’s discomfort for them?
And how is that working for you? 😉
I passionately want to live in a world where we all let those impulses out, and where we all feel safe expressing them without filters and sugar coating, and where each person is trusted to handle and hold their own discomfort.
Yours in truth-telling,