Chapter 10: Fierceness
Our culture holds the illusion that there are only two ways to be: peaceful or violent. If you are peaceful, it’s not acceptable to stand up for yourself when someone crosses your boundaries. Peaceful people don’t rock the boat. Peaceful people obey authority. Peaceful people will go to any lengths to avoid conflict and appease those who are angry.
Your alternative is to be violent. Violent people aren’t nice. Violent people don’t respect the boundaries of others. Our society sometimes has a kind of sick worship of violent people, like ancient conquerors or CEOs who cut employee health plans to pad their own retirement funds. Violent people don’t necessarily cause physical harm, but they do whatever it takes to get their way, crushing whomever stands in their path. For ordinary people, however, it’s unacceptable to be violent.
This game is rigged! We’ve been offered the “choice” to go into either of these two boxes: the peaceful box or the violent box. The peaceful box sings of niceness, happiness, calmness; who would want to go into the violent box? Only bad people go in there. It’s a bait and switch. We choose the peaceful box, but the baggage that comes along is passivity, obedience, and complacency. We learn that it’s wrong to stand up for ourselves, and if we do, we’re often called mean, harsh, or cruel, and put into the violent box.
Luckily, there is a third box: fierceness. Peaceful is complacent, violent is aggressive, but fierce is the middle ground: assertive. Being fierce is being passionate about what you believe, defending your boundaries, and getting what you need without disrespecting others. It’s standing up for yourself without knocking down everyone else. We’re taught that fierceness equals violence, but that’s simply not true. Consider Gandhi; his actions as a leader illustrate fierceness. Gandhi wasn’t violent, but he certainly wasn’t peaceful in the sense we’re told we have to be; he wasn’t complacent or mindlessly obedient, nor was he aggressive or disrespectful. He stated his boundaries clearly and stood his ground firmly when they were crossed.
Gryphon’s Story: The Clawless Swipe of Fierceness
Like most cats, our kitten Gryphon excels at setting and keeping good boundaries. If someone violates Gryphon’s boundaries, he will let them know with a hiss and a clawless swipe: nonverbal communication for “The line is drawn and you have crossed it.” If the offender backs off, ceases the offensive action, and takes care to avoid violating Gryphon’s boundaries again, they’ll be fine. In fact, if they treat him with respect they’ll eventually earn his trust. Otherwise, if they continue to violate his boundaries, they’ll get hurt.
We can learn a lot from how cats communicate and defend their boundaries. They communicate their boundaries with a hiss and a clawless swipe, clearly expressing what will happen if the line is crossed again.
If someone violates a boundary you have clearly expressed, warn them that the line has been crossed and explain the consequences of a repeat offense. If they persist in disrespecting your boundary, fiercely defend yourself by either fixing the situation or removing yourself from it.
Kyeli’s Story: Improv Night
I worked for a theater instructor named Eduardo a few years ago. One night, we hosted an improv event for his students. Since it was a family friendly event, I had my eight-year-old son Dru with me. At one point, Dru and a couple of other boys played quietly in the back of the building while Eduardo performed on stage. The boys kept quiet, so I left them alone. However, after his skit, Eduardo flew to the back of the building and descended upon Dru. As soon as he walked away, I went to Dru to see what had happened. Dru said Eduardo had told him that he was being too distracting and that he wanted Dru to either quit playing or go outside.
After making sure Dru was okay, I pulled Eduardo aside to talk about what had happened. I told him that he was totally out of line. I found it unacceptable that he told my son to go out and play in a parking lot in the dark without talking to me first. I explained how very upset I felt. He apologized in a flippant tone and seemed to think that was the end of it, but I still felt angry. It seemed like he hadn’t heard me at all!
I tried harder to clearly convey my feelings, but after a few minutes he said, “I apologized, I said I wouldn’t do it again, no one was hurt, what more do you want? We have a business relationship. What happened with your kid doesn’t come into it. Let it go so we can continue to work together.”
I replied, “My son is a part of everything I do. By endangering him, you endanger our work relationship.” He, however, continued to dodge responsibility and even refused to reassure me that similar things wouldn’t happen again. I took a couple of deep breaths and made a decision. I said, “No. I will work the rest of this week, because you have already paid me. But Friday afternoon, I am done. This is over. I won’t work with you anymore.”
I have a clear boundary: do not ever endanger the life of my child. When my boss crossed this boundary and then refused to acknowledge it, I stood up for myself and my son. I became fierce and took my family away from the potential of future dangerous situations.
In communication, especially during conflict, we often take on the roles of peaceful or violent. One person takes the role of the attacker (violent) and the other one either meekly apologizes (peaceful) or fights back (violent). These roles block healthy communication. If you take the violent role, you may feel good about standing up for what you need, but you may also feel guilty for hurting someone else in order to fill your needs. If you take the peaceful role, you may feel good about having avoided conflict, but you may also feel disappointed or bitter about not getting your needs met.
You don’t have to take either of those roles; instead, you can be fierce. Communicating with fierceness means asking for what you need while respecting the needs of your partner. Fierceness empowers you to clearly communicate your boundaries and to stand up for yourself if your partner crosses any of them. When you act fiercely, you are better able to treat yourself and your partner with equal respect.
Many people are at a loss when encountering fierceness because it’s still all too rare. Just as it’s vital to protect your physical boundaries, it’s important to defend your emotional and conversational boundaries. Fierceness takes practice and can be nerve-wracking or frustrating, but it’s well worth the effort. Once you learn where your boundaries are and can communicate them effectively, fierceness empowers you to protect those boundaries without feeling overly meek or overly destructive.