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Does Your Physical Vulnerability Make You Less Assertive?

“Brave” icon Sara Bareilles (source: Variety)

Today’s post is kind of hard for me to write, because I have to admit to behavior I’m not proud of. Recent behavior, not things I did when I was young, foolish, and easily misled. It’s an issue I think a lot of us deal with, though, and maybe if I speak up, so will you.

Many of us with hidden disabilities are physically vulnerable. We are less able to fend off physical force, and that may lead us to be less assertive than we want to be.

My story is about my neighbor “Jeff” again. Don’t worry, I’m done with him. In my book, I mentioned that the way I force myself to do the right thing is to tell my dilemma to everyone I’d be letting down if I did the wrong thing. Last night, in the thick of it, I told a close friend whose opinion matters to me. I didn’t want to, but I needed her “supervision” to make sure I followed through.

Last night Jeff called me to ask if he could borrow my mobile phone power bank, a bulk-storage battery that allows me to charge my phone without an outlet. It’s a life saver in hostels, which are typically in old buildings from the time before smartphones and have a guest-to-outlet ratio of about 10:1. I use my power bank a lot at home too.

I immediately said no to Jeff. My phone was down to 62% charge and my power bank was half gone for the day already, thanks to an online Scrabble marathon with my friend. Now, a half-full power bank will still charge my phone from a dead battery to 100% twice, but that’s neither here nor there. Bottom line, that power bank is super high-end, it’s one of my favorite possessions, and I didn’t want to lend it out to anyone, least of all him.

Here’s the thing with Jeff, once he hears the word no, he turns on the manipulative talk full blast. And here’s the thing with me—I feel guilty for having so much more than he does. We come from vastly different backgrounds and I’ve always enjoyed a much higher standard of living than he has, right up to the heat wave in August that I rode out in air-conditioned comfort, never once inviting him in for relief from the sweltering. (He always overstays his welcome.)

Jeff physically showed up at my door while he was talking on the phone, and I handed him the power bank with a list of conditions for its use, including its return by 10:00 PM so I could recharge it overnight, as is my routine.

After he left with it, I was even madder at myself than at him. I hated being without it even for the evening; why did I let him have it? It wasn’t so much that I needed it; I really like it and didn’t want it out of my control. The way I felt brought back an incident that happened 8 years ago, a year after my crash. I left it out of my book because it put some people who are still in my life in a very bad light. They totally deserved the bad press and I wish I’d included the scene, because it was important to the development of my “afterlife.”

My left arm was still very weak then, the screws fresh and painful against any pressure, and something as simple as a friend gripping my upper arm while making a conversational point could bring me to my knees. I still had trouble writing with a pen, and my spine still felt brittle, as it could snap like a twig if I bent over to pick up a quarter. Mind you, I’d ridden my bicycle solo to Qualicum Beach, BC in this body, but I still had to handle it with care.

My neighbor was a 19-year-old young man (a generous term, he was a kid) on his own for the first time. His landlady was a woman I discovered to be abjectly codependent—not a solid grownup, and she had her own issues that led her to allow him to live alone in the condo she had just bought. “Cory” went to community college. Now, community college students tend to be more serious about their studies than university freshmen, who are all about their newfound freedom. Community college students are usually there for job programs and are already working at jobs they hope to advance out of with the skills they learn in school.

Not so much Cory. He was all about the parties. He had blowout bashes with 50 guests or more, loud music, and clouds of smoke and Axe body spray. One night he broke his bedroom window—how do you even do that? This kid lasted 6 months before the condo board evicted him. It would have taken even longer than that if I hadn’t violated board-member protocol and contacted the owner directly myself.

One night Cory was listening to music so loud that the concrete floor vibrated under my feet. I texted Eric, my neighbor on the other side of Cory, and we agreed to go to Cory’s door together and ask him to turn down his music. He hung his head and apologized, and promised not to do it again. He even introduced us to his dog. Eric and I agreed afterward, “What a nice young man.”

A minute after I closed my door behind me, there was a knock. Cory was standing there with a copy of the condo rules and regulations, and he shouted at me that we weren’t in quiet hours and he could be “as loud as he wanted.” I actually tried to explain the nuances of the rules to this kid before he got completely in my face and I ducked into my unit and deadbolted the door behind me. This kid was 100 pounds dripping wet, but he could have taken me if he’d had a mind to. I was terrified and didn’t stop feeling under siege until he was ousted a full two months later.

Cory went to me, not Eric. He knew he couldn’t terrorize Eric the way he did me. My door was blocked from Eric’s sight line, and it would have taken a lot for him to hear me, 2 doors down as he was. Cory chose his victim for his bully act like the coward he was.

Last night was very different from that night long ago. I’m much stronger physically than I was then, much tougher emotionally, and I’m in a close-knit community where we know one another. I have burly neighbors close by in 3 directions who would have come running at the first sound of trouble and taken my side before anyone explained a thing. There was no actual threat this time, but that’s what being triggered is—a response out of proportion to the stimulus because of past trauma. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t being threatened; my fight-or-flight response was fully engaged.

The roots of that fear still gripped me deep down and I let myself get treated badly because of it.

There is a saying in 12-step groups to help people shed old behaviors that no longer serve them:  “Name it, claim it, and throw it away.” Around 11 last night, when it was clear I wasn’t getting my power bank back that night, I did just that. I recognized that I had been triggered and reinforced Jeff’s notion that I’m available to be preyed upon. This incident wasn’t only about my prized power bank, it was about force versus consent, and all the grays in between. Forgiving myself was the only way I was going to be able to sleep.

I turned off all my lights to project a strong unwelcome, and I muted my phone. This morning I waited until about 10 AM, then I went over and pounded on Jeff’s door. I heard muttering from inside. I kept pounding. The door opened a crack and he passed my power bank through. I grabbed it and flounced on home without a word. His borrowing days are over. I have no doubt that he’ll ask again as if nothing happened. I’m ready.

People with hidden disabilities are often taken advantage of, and it’s hard to say we won’t let that happen when most people are physically stronger than we are. If there’s one thing I learned from my dad, though, it’s that there are many other kinds of might besides physical strength. Look at the story of David and Goliath. It’s important for us to share our ideas, and be prepared to use our coping tools with firmness and confidence. Right now my best tool is my community. My other neighbors wouldn’t hesitate to use their physical brawn in my defense. The one closest to me might even welcome the chance a bit too readily. Knowing that, maybe I can break that fear trigger.

I ran long today, but I hope you will too—tell me your stories. Let’s talk about the tools we can use to stop people from taking advantage of us. If enough of you respond, I’ll run another post about the techniques we discussed. In the words of Sara Bareilles, “Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live; maybe one of these days you can let the light in—show me how big your brave is!”

Does Your Physical Vulnerability Make You Less Assertive?

Kristin Noreen

Kristin Noreen lives in Bellingham, Washington with two cats and her vintage touring bicycle, Silver. Her triple passions are animal rescue, long-distance bike touring, and writing. Her book, On Silver Wings: A Life Reconstructed, is about reinventing her life following a catastrophic injury.

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APA Reference
, . (2019). Does Your Physical Vulnerability Make You Less Assertive?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 18 Sep 2019
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