How to Ride the Rollercoaster: An Inner Guide for Bystander Intervention

This is part two of a two part article. Part one is available.

In the previous article, I wrote my own experience of intervening in sexual harassment in Tokyo as a stranger. I learned in a hard way that bystander intervention is like riding a serious emotional rollercoaster, especially if it’s your first time. While there are many helpful and technical guidelines out there (see this or this), I feel like they may not be adequately catering to the real inner needs of a bystander. So based on my own mistakes and reflection, I’d like to share what I think is an internally realistic way to prepare yourself with ‘why’ and ‘how’ of bystander intervention.

To begin with, let’s review the real challenges a bystander may face for intervention as a stranger.

  1. Surprise. The occasion arises unexpectedly. You don’t know when you are going to encounter harassment or assault. You may be working, shopping, going to somewhere, hanging out with your friends. But all of sudden, a violent scene starts to unfold in front of your eyes, which can surprise you greatly and rid you of your emotional composure.
  2. Confusion. It can be hard to tell if it’s a violence/sexual harassment or just an aggressive interaction unique to the particular couple. The victim’s reaction can be only subtle. You may find contradictory behaviors like their facial expression and body gesture don’t match, which can make you very confused. 
  3. Self-blaming: The clock starts to tick as soon as you see the violence happening. If you take too long to get ready, the aggressor will finish their business. The more you think about the victim and the situation, the more you tend to blame yourself for not taking action already.
  4. Self-preserving Thoughts: As you are seriously challenged internally about whether to put your body on the line, you would feel a series of emotions disguised as rational thoughts that essentially tell you, “there is no need for me to do it.” Your fear, doubts, and many other negative emotions will shake your integrity, courage, and sense of justice to take the easiest way out, which is to do nothing.

To overcome those obstacles, you need to know WHY you are going to intervene. This “why” won’t work if it is an “external why,” which is proposed by any intervention guideline, classes in school, or by society. Instead, it has to be a “personal why” that you actually buy into. Since you will risk your own well-being both physically and emotionally for the intervention, you can’t take action unless you have a strong, personal reason to act. The “why” can be for the victim or for yourself. As long as it is something that gets you moving, it doesn’t matter what it is.

Personally, I did it almost entirely for myself. As selfish as it may sound, I didn’t want to regret it. I couldn’t empathize with the victim before the intervention as much as I should have because I was dealing with my own internal fear. Instead, I thought about the purpose of my life. I have been working on myself quite seriously to grow spiritually over the past year and a half, and not taking any action when I see violence in front of my eyes would have meant I was a fraud. All the effort I’ve made in the past and all the talk I’ve shared with my friends would have meant nothing but trash. I would not have been able to withstand such a feeling going forward.

To mitigate the fear for the potential risk, I decided to see the situation as an opportunity for me to grow, instead of something that can leave me serious damage. I thought that even if I get stabbed with a knife by the guy, I probably won’t die and will be fine eventually. Being able to overcome such an existential fear is an accomplishment on its own. I accepted whatever was going to happen through my intervention and believed that I will be okay.

You can use whatever reason that works for YOU to take any type of action, but that reason should be ideally thought through beforehand. Since the occasion rises quickly and unexpectedly in real life, you simply won’t have enough time to get ready, unless you have already promised yourself to take action no matter what.

Once you get the “why,” you now actually have to intervene. You essentially need to take two steps for the intervention. First, you need to see whether it is harassment or not. I learned that your gut instinct tells it best. Your intuition can tell the essence of the situation far better and faster than any type of rational reasoning because this is not an intellectual matter after all.

Observe the interaction between the aggressor and victim with all your mind and use common sense—if you see a forceful interaction or intimidation, it means the violence is happening. You can also look at the victim’s body gesture, not just their facial expression. I came to think that the victim’s body gesture tells the real story more than their facial expression, especially when the victim is under a tremendous fear. The victim can be acting fine to not agitate the abuser. So know that their gesture or expression can be very subtle.

Next, you need to “verify” that it’s harassment. By “verifying,” I mean it as an internal process of actually convincing yourself to act. I believe that this verification process is the hardest part of the intervention. This is when you use your WHY. To believe that it is harassment or assault, you need to be ready mentally to take action. Since your mind tries to protect you from a potentially very dangerous situation, it will do literally everything to make you give up. Your mind can, as my mind did, reframe the situation as something that was “too unclear” to judge as harassment. Your mind can also project a big fear in you and says, “I don’t know how I can actually be helpful out there so I don’t need to go.” 

What your mind is doing here is to find a reason for you to not act. It is trying to reduce your sense of guilt for inaction through rational reasoning. Logical thinking can misfunction like this to justify your sense of fear or guilt. And most people uphold what this rational mind tells you at this moment because its voice seems logically convincing.

However, they are essentially thought of self-preservation, not of your own sense of justice or moral integrity. If you can compare the two and take self-preservation, you inflict moral damage within yourself. The moment you do that, you essentially destroy your sense of justice internally, and that have an extensive impact on your well-being later on.

Not all thoughts in your mind are created equal, and it’s helpful to keep in mind that you ALWAYS have the power to choose which thought to believe in and act upon. We all know that the mind is constantly creating many stupid and insensitive thoughts on any given day or time, but no one will actually, for example, try to jump off of a skyscraper, like Tom Cruise or Jackie Chen, since however cool it may seem, we all know that’s actually a wrong thing to do in real life. This is yet another occasion where the mind raises thoughts not worthy of real action, so you just need to let it slide. However, under enormous fear and pressure, letting such a thought go of your mind becomes extremely hard.

There is no easy way to overcome this internal fear but knowing that it’s normal to have those thoughts can relieve some of it. When you are seriously challenged mentally or feel stressed, a part of your brain that feels pain gets activated, and you get into a “fight-or-flight” response. This causes you to lose awareness and the capacity to think mindfully, which then leads you to pick an easy way out that you will regret in the future. So tell yourself that it’s okay to have fearful or seemingly disingenuous thoughts.

Next, focus on the most immediate step for the intervention. Rather than thinking ahead and aiming for a future result, you should just focus on showing up to the harassment sight. We often get caught up in this idea that we need to intervene successfully and achieve a complete result. This thought makes the task so hard and intimidating, and cripples many of us to take action in the first place. However, you have to know the fact that you can never know what’s going to happen even if you intervene. So instead of calculating the unknown, you should focus on what’s in front of you and what you can do for sure, which is to move your feet one by one at a time to walk up to the sight of violence.

Once you get there, you don’t need to even say a word. You can just stare at them. You are already courageous enough to simply put yourself out there. Your presence and silence will still have an impact on the abuser. Just trust that you will be okay and let the world take care of the scene. You don’t need to say anything smart because it’s not a speech contest. You can just go in with no plan or expectation, which gives you flexibility, which gives you the ultimate strength in such a challenging situation. You can take any action next, even escaping from the scene is okay.

The biggest reason why we intervene is to let the victim know that there are some people who care enough to step up for them. Whether your action can save the victim or not should be the secondary concern if that’s what’s binding you from taking action (while, of course, it would be nice if you could). The simple act of putting your body out there standing and staring alone can be a strong gesture and is a hundred times better than doing nothing. I feel like the world can be a safer place if more of us can do just that. 

Lastly, you can help three people at once if I intervene in a harassment sight: The victim, yourself, and the abuser. The bystander intervention can not only save the victim, but you can also learn a deeper, fearful side of yourself and how to use your own “why” to still bring out the action. You can give the abuser an opportunity to learn his own wrongdoing and rethink himself, whether he chooses to use that opportunity or not. So however hard it may appear to you in the real-life moment, bystander intervention is worth the risk. Embrace the fact that life is offering you an opportunity to stand up for yourself to grow as a person and help two more people along the way. 

For those who are willing to take a risk and intervene in any type of violence they see in the future, may the peace be with them.

P.S. Someone put on a link of this video on the comment section of my first post, and I found it quite relevant. It’s an ad but a good one for us to visualize how some intervention scenes may look like.

2 Replies to “How to Ride the Rollercoaster: An Inner Guide for Bystander Intervention”

  1. I think you were being awfully hard on yourself but I understand the feeling. It’s good that you took action no matter when that action was taken. I think you were brave and did the right thing.

    I encountered a similar situation but I intervened in a slightly different way. I was in Inokashira Koen and I observed a young girl sitting on a bench she seemed uncomfortable and yet was being polite to a foreign man who is sitting in such a way that sort of blocked her path. It became pretty clear to me that she was not comfortable with his advances but was too young or too inexperienced with this sort of thing to have the confidence to get up and leave. The man was leaning into her and trying to get her to leave with him. I decided to do something but the man was considerably larger than me and I knew that a direct confrontation would potentially lead to violence and yet they were enough people around but I wasn’t overly afraid of him. I approached and sat down on a bench very near them, facing her, and with him to my left. I did this casually so that he would not be sure that I wasn’t just some person who didn’t know what was going on and happens to sit nearby. I then made eye contact with her to be sure what was going on and I saw a “help me” look in her eyes so I struck up a random conversation with both of them. He was visibly annoyed but I pretended not to notice. My presence made it impossible for him to continue. At one point I looked to her and said “oh it’s getting late, isn’t it?” She understood the cue and said “ oh yes, I have to go” her eyes saying thank you as she slipped away, immediately I turned to him and continued to talk. He was distressed and angry but was not sure of what he was doing and didn’t want to be seen chasing after an underage girl so he sat with me for another 5 to 10 minutes. Sometimes direct confrontation is not the only way to help someone in distress.

  2. DMD, what you did sounds very smart, effective, and non-confrontational. It’s nice to hear about other people’s cases and strategies for different situations because we do need to adapt and customize. And yes, you are absolutely right that you don’t need to confront the aggressor in helping the victim. You made me realize there was an assumption in me that it has to take place in a certain upright confrontational way. I will take a note for my Japanese post on this.

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