Protect Yourself From A Dominated Life

It's your life; don't let a bully tell you how to live it.


This week as I've listened to the horrifying situation in Iraq and Syria, I'm reminded about domination and how we can all make the world a better place when we notice and call it out. So you know where I'm coming from, here's a bit of my background. I grew up "Church of Christ." You may know the Church of Christ for its famous rejection of instrumental music in the worship service. The Church of Christ eschews statues, organs, bells, candles, incense, the Hallelujah Chorus and women reading poetry (or doing just about anything else except sitting quietly, listening to men). I also love art and music and was raised by two classically trained violinists. Color and texture and shape get me energized. Good music provides me a portal to strength, peace and creativity. 


I learned in the Church of Christ that, as a group, dominators (for example, people who relish telling others what to do) tend to be very anxious. They appear to have steel nerves — but their inner lives are like spider webbing. Free-form creativity makes them nervous. Closeness and sex (other people's) enrage them. They get rewarded with positions of authority because they make others afraid. They climb their way to the top of the pyramid by stepping on the backs of people who are too polite to say what's happening aloud.

Here's what we call them:

  • Preacher
  • Warden
  • Head-Of-The-Household
  • Prime Minister
  • Dean
  • Therapist/Doctor
  • Professor
  • Boyfriend/Girlfriend

Now, there are some very compassionate ministers. Not all seek to dominate and not all therapists relish telling people what's wrong with them, but many do. So many, in fact, that I've decided we have a bullying epidemic that can be hidden in many costumes: civic boards, workplaces, institutions of higher education, democratic election processes — even marriages.


I've been bullied in a variety of contexts: my family-of-origin, my early religious life, a romantic attachment in college, and an adult workplace. In my most recent bullying experience, I felt isolated and out of touch with anybody who could understand or help. I got sick, had panic attacks, fell down a lot (literally), lost my voice (literally), gained 20 pounds, and pulled myself into a protective shell that kept me from visiting certain parts of town or writing a public blog or going dancing (which I can do now because I'm no longer part of the Church of Christ).

Domination and bullying share everything in common. Bullies and dominators want power, which is the license to tell people what to do, think or feel. They work in groups — it's hard for the king or queen bully to effectively gain control by themselves. They fear being revealed as shams, so much so that they use force or coercion to create the illusion of strength or rightness. They find ways to humiliate or dehumanize their targets who consist of anyone daring to question or disagree with them. Bullies and dominators refuse to apologize when they hurt you. They make you feel it's your own fault. They alienate you from larger groups and drive wedges between you and your loved ones. They refuse to honor your boundaries. They convince you it's unwise to try and protect yourself.

I think it's important to notice these patterns in relationships because it's in relationship where the dominator trend begins. It starts early in the relationship, with a subtle manipulation, seduction or veiled insult. It begins gradually and escalates. The first signs of bullying may be so confusing that you tell yourself it's just your imagination. By noticing and speaking up early, you may not only avoid being the target of someone's pattern of ruthless power-grabbing; you may nip their take-down spree in the bud, especially if it's happening in a place (like your job site) where you have some authority.

In love relationships, noticing domination may be incredibly painful, and it may be the bravest move you've ever made to say, "I hate it when you do that; I am no longer available to be addressed in that way; I will not allow you to push her around that way." Your brave voice may trigger a cascade of negative responses from the person, or more weirdly, a cascade of apologies and promises that they'll do better. Be mindful. Notice everything. Say what you feel. Ask for advice from someone outside the situation. Listen to your inner voice and know you're not alone.