Intimidating. This word has a negative connotation in our language, and rightly so, because it's definition is "to scare someone into doing what one wants." Its Latin root, intimidare, literally translates as "to frighten." However, I am surprised how many people use this description, this action, this negative connotation improperly.
Recently this one word has kept popping up in my life and I can no longer ignore it. I have heard it before and I am sure I will continue to hear it throughout my life. Intimidating. I have not only been called intimidating, but I have also been told that I am not easily intimidated by others. I honestly started hearing this word so often in so many different contexts that I decided to do some investigatory work and figure out what the buzz is about this word! Here goes:
To intimidate is an action. In the present tense. However, being in the present tense means that the person who is performing the action is actively doing something to scare you into performing a task or action.
On the converse...
Being intimidated by someone is entirely different. I once had a professor in undergrad who everyone feared. She was a short Icelandic woman who took nonsense from no one and worked hard every day of her life to get to where she wanted to be. Was she intense? Yes! Was she intimidating? No! She offered extra office hours to review test questions and tough materials. She went out of her way to allow me to contract my capstone through the Honors Program, which meant I had to develop a research question, which took hours out of her week to mentor me and supervise me through it. She pushed me hard and didn't take no as an answer, but she never intimidated me into anything. However, my classmates didn't feel the same way. Because of her no-nonsense attitude, my classmates feared her.
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But, herein lies the difference. My professor never did anything malicious to anyone to get them to do anything. She wanted us to succeed, but she never attempted to scare us into anything we didn't want to do. It wasn't that she was intimidating (active), but instead people were intimidated by her (passive). These are two very different events and by accepting this fact, we have the opportunity to not only affect our thinking, but also our interactions with others. I call this "Intimidation Shaming." It's when you project your inadequate feelings to make other seem more menacing instead of owning up to your own short comings.
Now, I know that some people might argue that the intent of the interaction is obsolete, but there are several philosophers that would disagree with you greatly. Intent is everything, and in the absence of malicious intent, the word "intimidating" is what is truly obsolete in this instance.
I invite you to ask yourself these questions the next time you come across someone who is "intimidating": Is this person actively doing something to making be feel inferior? What proof do I have? Is this a perception that I have on them based on my reception of our interactions grounded in malice? Why do I think this person is intimidating?
Instead of pulling out and playing the victim card, try to investigate the situation a little more clearly. Take ownership of the situation. How do you feel about this person so that you are perceiving them this way? Did they do something to you or did they do something you didn't like? Are you envious of them in a way that would make you resent them? Are they pushing you too hard to perform?
If you find that a person is intimidating you because they are highly successful, doesn't it make more sense to seek those individuals out to mentor you so you can learn from their success rather than demonizing it? How much stronger could we be as a field if we stop fearing and start pining for answers to these questions?
By asking yourself these questions, you might learn something new about yourself that you can carry into future interactions with friends, co-workers, or even mentors. Last but not least, a mantra for you to repeat in your head if you ever find yourself at the center of this intimidation shaming: "If I was truly intimidating you, you would know."