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Ask Ellie: Learn to speak up for yourself by leading with empathy

Dear Ellie: I was brought up to be risk-averse, run from fights, avoid trouble/confrontation. It’s kept me self-protective. Now middle-aged, I feel somewhat like a coward… wondering if I should stand up in some situations.

Dear Ellie: I was brought up to be risk-averse, run from fights, avoid trouble/confrontation. It’s kept me self-protective.

Now middle-aged, I feel somewhat like a coward… wondering if I should stand up in some situations. But I’m neither quick-witted nor good at handling surprises, never the first to volunteer.

Recently, walking to retrieve my car at a small shopping plaza, a young mother was yelling/swearing at her three sons, all under age six, while searching all over for a missing card.

“Get in the car and be quiet,” she ordered. The kids weren’t crying or particularly rambunctious.

Her car was parked next to mine, her car doors and tailgate all open. I couldn’t get into my car’s driver-side. I stood by for almost ten minutes waiting for her to calm down.

She got more hysterical and continued to yell at her children, verging on being verbally abusive. A young couple heard the commotion and came to intervene.

The children’s mother was initially angry but later admitted to “losing it.” She eventually noticed my standing there and let me get in my car to leave.

Was there something I could have done without making the situation worse?

What should I have done? How do I override this life-long conditioning of trying not to get involved? How do I not get drawn into a situation whereby I could be mistaken as a trouble-maker?

When To Intervene?

Step up by asking, “Can I help?” It’s a simple offer, without judgement. The woman could have responded “mind your own business,” but there’s nothing dangerous in that exchange.

Indeed, your ten minutes of standing by may have saved those young children from a worse sample of her “losing it.” And the young couple who intervened responded just by their presence.

Unfortunately, you’ve internalized old messages to always be reluctant to help others … even when there’s no obvious reason that you’d suffer for doing so.

Speaking up would have been a kindness to those very young children and a gentle way of helping the mother. All it takes is empathy, not a grand gesture.

You did stay without complaint until she moved her car, becoming helpful just by your presence. Remember that response and it’s calming effect on the situation.

Consider safety? Yes. But ignoring someone’s obvious need for help? No. Reach out. You’ll like yourself more.

Readers’ Commentary regarding the advice you gave on sex in marriage (April 27):

“It seems you’re framing sex as a marital obligation. But sexual desire isn’t any more “natural” than, say, heterosexual attraction. Some people feel sexual desire, but others don’t.

“However, when someone implies there’s something wrong with the woman if she doesn’t feel sexual desire for a decent man, it sends a powerful message that sexual desire is required, to be “normal.”

“I recommend the book Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, by Angela Chen, which breaks down sexual and romantic desire to a new shade of human experience.”

Ellie:I did not — and would not — dictate what’s “normal” regarding sex within a relationship. The husband asked if there can be help for people (his wife) who have lost sexual desire. My answer was “yes,” if she wanted to find that help.

But since she said, only once, that she’s moved from previous sexual interest to none, she’s being unfair to her husband unless they both discuss/accept the reality of his sexual drive vs. her lack of it. If they remain in the marriage, that’s their business.

FEEDBACK regarding uninvited guests attending a private event including a stranger to the wedding party, “brought along” by a work friend’s wife (April 29):

Reader: “During my years spent in the hospitality industry, I met my share of con men and women. Cocktail receptions were the easy ones to crash. Sit-down dinners with place cards? A no-no.

“One older, very friendly, well-dressed lady would show up regularly at weddings, introducing herself as a friend or former neighbour and networking with the names.

“With more than 800 weddings a year at Toronto’s famed Old Mill, dinner/party/and wedding venue, we must have had our share of undetected gate crashers.

“Not all of them were funny, given having had a situation when an ex-boyfriend shared vicious rumours before getting kicked out.”

Hans J. Gerhardt, hotelier/author

Ellie’s tip of the day

Recognizing when an offer of help can remove tension also strengthens your own self-confidence.

Send relationship questions to [email protected].