What do we mean when we call someone “intimidating”?

Jackie Dreyer
Oct 30, 2019 · 4 min read
A lightbulb that is turned on in a dark room surrounded by white dots.
A lightbulb that is turned on in a dark room surrounded by white dots.
Photo by Zach Lucero on Unsplash

Throughout my entire adult life, I’ve been told that I am intimidating in a variety of different scenarios—in the workplace, in dating scenarios, in social situations. Every time I was told I’m intimidating, it was never cast in a positive light, and naturally, it always made me feel bad. It was all the more hurtful when it came from the mouth of someone I truly cared about.

The negative emotion I experienced each time I heard that word should come of no surprise if you’ve ever read any dictionary’s definition of the word “intimidate.” Merriam Webster defines the verb as “to make timid or fearful; frighten; especially to compel or deter by or as if by threats.” We start to get to the root of the underlying issue, however, when you look up the word “intimidating” in the same dictionary: “causing a loss of courage or self-confidence; producing feelings of fear or timidity.”

While scrolling on Instagram one day, I found an anonymous quote that reads, “You’re not intimidating. They’re intimidated. There is a big difference.” Amid my own personal journey of trying to understand why people kept assigning me this descriptor, my mind was blown. I suddenly realized this word—a word that, time after time, made me feel like there was something wrong with me—was actually a reaction to any number of feelings the people using it had about themselves.

The root cause of intimidation comes from the age-old habit all human beings have of comparing themselves to others. We allow ourselves to be triggered by our own insecurities and issues when we see someone who we perceive as not having that same hurdle to conquer. We also set ourselves up to misinterpret someone else’s amount of self-love, sense of self-worth, or belief in one’s self. Both of these instances produce the negative emotion of intimidation, and it’s easier to project outwards and place the blame on another person than reflect inwards and wonder why someone has caused this feeling within us to emerge.

I can only speak for myself, but I’ve put in more years than I can count working on my self-confidence and learning to really love myself, especially the less-than-desirable bits, like my struggle with anxiety. It’s gotten me to a place where I feel confident about the person I’ve become—what I feel, what I think, what I believe—but it’s still something that I practice daily and will continue to (need to) practice for the rest of my life. The last thing I would ever want is all of the positive work I’ve put in on my mental state to upset someone else in the ways that the aforementioned dictionary definition stated.

I’ve never gotten a straight answer from someone when I’ve asked them why they called me intimidating. (Frankly, I probably wouldn’t have written this article if they had.) Some people try to spin it positively, but no matter what angle I examine it from, I’m not convinced. I’m sorry, but I have to call bullshit on anyone who tries to tell me that someone calling me intimidating comes from a place of admiration “as a means to acknowledge [my] strength, knowledge, and power,” as stated in a HuffPost article.

The frustration only builds when you factor in that, as a woman, this takes on an additional meaning for me. Being called intimidating feels much like the age-old dichotomy of certain personality traits being positive attributes for men, but negative attributes for women. Assertive women are “bitches,” women with leadership qualities are “bossy,” confident women are “bragging,” emotional women are “unstable,” and women who don’t express their emotions are “cold.”

The list doesn’t stop there, and being “intimidating” is certainly another word that applies. Intimidating men are thought of as commanding and omnipotent, while intimidating women are seen as off-putting, too opinionated, too harsh, not feminine enough. A 2015 study from Stanford University reinforces this idea, stating, “People believe that men should be dominant and that women should be warm, writes Tiedens. Women who violate those stereotypes aren’t seen as warm, and if they occupy leadership roles in business or politics, they may be viewed as a threat to men’s status as earners, the researchers say.”

So, what do we do about it? There’s no denying there is a lot going on behind the scenes with the word intimidate and its many variations. There’s no overnight solution, especially when part of it is so deeply rooted in the patriarchy and gender inequality, but there are a few small changes we each can make on an individual level. Before you call someone intimidating, try to think about what it is that they’ve said or done that has made that word come to mind. Maybe you won’t be able to identify it in the moment, but you can still attempt to use a different adjective to describe how you feel. What you’ll get in the long-run is a more meaningful conversation that isn’t overshadowed by unnecessary feelings of self-doubt or hurt— I’d call that a win.

Jackie Dreyer

Written by

From Wisconsin to southern Spain. Bilingual writer, editor, and translator. Never not looking for a great cup of coffee. That friend who stops to pet every dog.

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