Subtle Harassment: More Dangerous Than You Think

finger art man yelling at woman

SOME OF US have different rules for ourselves than for others. We may hold ourselves to higher standards of conduct and accomplishment. We may consider our own well-being as less important than that of another.

For those of us who do so, it can be hard to take our own thoughts and feelings seriously. This is especially true when we’re in situations in which another’s behavior is causing us some kind of harm. It’s difficult to see wrong-doing done to us as wrong-doing. It’s hard to judge another and all-too-easy to dismiss our own experience.

The corrective measure, according to cognitive behavioral therapy, is to speak to ourselves as we would a trusted friend in the same situation. In this way, we can circumvent our biases against ourselves to achieve greater self-validation, and maybe even muster up some good advice.

The following is a letter to my “trusted friend.”

You’re not being stupid or petty. You’re not a baby for being scared. It’s not okay that he won’t leave you alone. You told him not to contact you anymore. That was a year ago.

I know you feel petty and weak for being afraid, because you know it could be worse. He didn’t threaten to hurt you physically or actually do so. But please don’t let that invalidate your fear.

You have a reason to be scared. When he sends you yet another email or text as though nothing’s happened even though you haven’t responded to him for months, when he follows you and your friend from one bar to the next, when he tries to corner you in public places to talk to you even though you consistently refuse to even look at him, he’s behaving in a threatening way.

It may not be an overt threat of physical harm. But he is telling you, with every email and every instance of following or cornering, that his desire to be in your life outweighs your desire to not have him in your life. He is telling you that he will get what he wants by taking it, no matter what you want. Most frightening of all, he’s telling you that your boundaries – your very explicitly-established boundaries – do not matter to him. That’s a f**king threat, and you have every reason to fear what other boundaries he might cross.

I’m sorry that I don’t know what you can do about it. I know he’s erratic and you fear his reaction if you did try to seek legal recourse, or if you speak openly about it and word gets back to him. You’re afraid of what he might do to someone else more than you if your actions escalate his anger.

All I can say is that you are not responsible for his actions or his reactions. Even if you take a step and he reacts poorly, that step was taken because of his incessant intrusion into your life. Because of his actions. Responsibility for him begins and ends with him. But of course, you have to think of safety.

I know you feel guilty when you think about doing anything at all about it, whether it’s legal action or a touch of public shaming, because you actually don’t want to hurt him. You are so talented at dismissing your own distress and discomfort and fear that you are able to overlook the fact that his actions are wrong and merit consequences for him. Not out of vengeance, but so that maybe he learns he cannot do this to people. You included. Because you’re a person. Subtle harassment is still harassment, and nobody deserves it.

I understand that this is about control. He wants to be in control, but you need to be in control of your own life, one part of which is whom you associate with, and whom you choose not to keep in your life.

While you try to gather resources and decide what to do, keep holding your ground. Don’t respond; don’t look at him; don’t engage. You might not be able to make him stop writing and approaching and accosting you, but you’re always in control of your own lack of reciprocation.

You deserve better. Your feelings matter. I’m here for you.

The National Center for Victims of Crimes provides a number of resources for people who think they may be the victims of various types of crimes. You can call their hotline at 1-855-4VICTIM (1-855-484-2846) to describe your situation, learn about your rights, and get connected with support services in your area. The hotline is available between 9am and 6pm ET, Monday through Friday. The National Domestic Violence hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE (7223), is a 24/7 service that can connect you with services in your area, even if your situation is not linked to an intimate partner.

The first step is to count your experience as valid. Try being your own friend.