When Being Polite Makes You Vulnerable; The Power of NOMay 16, 2022
It was early in 2006, and I took the train from central Modena back to my hotel after a day of solo sightseeing.
It gets dark early in Italy during winter, and although it was only 5:30 pm, it felt and looked like 9 pm. I entered an empty carriage except for two women sitting together (I assumed a mother and her adult daughter who had a toddler with her). They sat on the left side, so I took the first seat on the right diagonally opposite them and took out my copy of Vogue magazine.
Shortly after the train pulled out of the station, a middle-aged man entered the carriage. He walked past at least 20 empty rows of seats and came and sat on the bench directly opposite me, so we were facing each other. I thought this was weird, especially when I saw the look of concern on the younger woman's face as she elbowed her mother to look at this scenario.
I continued to read my magazine, convinced that he wouldn't do anything on a public train with two witnesses less than 5 metres away.
We didn't speak to each other, but I could feel his eyes on me, just sitting there, staring at me in silence. After a few minutes, he made an extensive display of suddenly splaying his legs open as far as possible, putting his crotch on show, and stroking his inner thigh- all the while staring at me and licking his lower lip suggestively.
At that moment (and this was a decade before I became a therapist), I realised that this was psychological warfare- he was trying to intimidate a young foreign woman on her own. To him, I might have looked like easy prey. Of course, he had no way of knowing that I had, in fact, survived an attempted rape at gunpoint and was absolutely unavailable for his antics.
I felt the adrenalin rush through my body, just as before with my attempted assault. My "fight" response kicked in, and I decided that I would not be polite or the "good girl" I had been taught to be.
I lowered my magazine, looked him straight in the eyes and stared back with laser intensity, refusing to look away or break eye contact. My inner warrior had shown up; she was tired of this shit and came to slay.
It felt as if time had completely slowed down; in my peripheral vision, I saw the young woman elbowing her mother again, both tensely watching this scene unfold.
My eyes started burning from the intense staring, but I had never felt more powerful in my body, so I instinctively folded my arms across my chest, signalling that I was settling in and felt zero fear.
The voice announcing the next stop broke us out of this trance, and he stood up. The older woman said something to him that I didn't understand, but I knew it wasn't anything friendly from his facial expression.
Had I been polite, smiled at him, or moved, he would've won, and who knows how that would encourage him to elaborate on his scare tactics in the future.
As a therapist, many of the stories my clients tell often start with them having a gut reaction that something didn't feel right, that the "vibe" was weird, but they defaulted to social etiquette because they had been taught their entire life lives to be a good girl.
Like the woman who stopped to give a stranger directions, only to have him expose himself and try to push her hands onto his privates or the one who allowed her blind date into her apartment when he asked for a glass of water, knowing full well she never wanted to see him again, never mind start a relationship.
How often do we women put ourselves at risk just because we are taught to be peacemakers, avoid conflict, be friendly, and make people around us feel comfortable- even if we aren't comfortable?
After several personal experiences and listening to survivors' stories, I know that I would prefer to apologise for a misunderstanding than land up dead. I'm totally OK with a stranger (and even people I know) thinking that I'm rude because I trust my intuition and value it over what other people might think of me- and I hope you will too.
Imagine how different the world would be if little girls were taught to set boundaries, as often as they were taught to be polite.
I invite you to teach your daughters that their feeling of safety trumps societal norms so that they too can practice standing in the power of their NO.
Janine Wirth, is the proud founder of Path to Healing Therapy and Coaching. Her mission is to help female entrepreneurs heal their emotional baggage, heal unresolved emotional trauma and PTSD without spending years in therapy and create spectacular business success for themselves. You may have read her story in The Spotlight and if so you’ll know why she’s so passionate about her work so when she got the opportunity to work alongside The Female CEO and provide a monthly question and answer she was thrilled!
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