Moving from Bystander to Action: Responding to Manipulative Behaviors

Author: Kathleen Rea
Published October 2020

Ella and Stan
Ella has been doing Contact Improvisation for a few years. At a recent jam, Ella had a dance with Stan, a more experienced and well-known contact improviser. In that dance, Stan manipulated Ella’s body into different shapes and lifts. Ella had danced with Stan before and the same thing had happened. Ella wanted to dance with Stan because Stan was fun to dance with, but Ella wished there could be a more equitable sharing of decision-making and lead/follow. Ella decided to have a chat with Stan and let them know what the experience was like. Stan was curious and asked questions so that they could better understand Ella’s experience. Ella explained that some people might like being moved around, but for them, it didn’t feel good. After considering Ella’s comments, Stan thanked Ella and said, “People see me as such a good dancer, but that means I hardly ever get any feedback. Even though I have a lot of skill, I still want my dancing to grow and adapt to different people’s styles”  The next time they danced, they made a plan together about ways in which they could share the lead and follow.

Okay, this scenario where everything works out well certainly does happen, but unfortunately, there are times when it does not go so well. Let’s look at an alternative version of the same situation.

Ella and Stan, another scenario
Ella described to Stan how it felt for them when they danced and asked Stan about sharing lead and follow in their dances. But, Stan became defensive and insisted that they did not dance that way. Stan told Ella that they needed more training and that Ella was being overly sensitive. Stan talked about a teacher whose technique was not good and asked Ella what classes they had taken, drawing the conversation towards a related, but off-topic, direction. Ella started to get upset because they felt that Stan was not listening. The jam facilitator stepped in and offered to meet with them before the next jam to help them sort out the issue.

Prior to their meeting, Stan phoned the jam facilitator and said they were worried about Ella’s mental health. Stan stated that they had heard that Ella had been having erratic mood swings. Stan also said that they were worried for their own safety due to these reports about Ella and that clearly the incident after the jam proved Ella was targeting them. Stan said that they were now scared to return to the jam. The jam facilitator realized that arbitrating a meeting between Ella and Stan might be complicated and asked a group to convene that meets more officially to arbitrate such matters.

Prior to the meeting, Stan also sent a long email to Ella in which they explained their level of experience, how well-liked they were and how, in the many years they had been dancing, no one else had ever given them such feedback. Stan told Ella how hurt they were by her accusations. Stan also told Ella the people in the group who were going to meet with them were all busy people who were volunteers and this non-issue might not be the best use of their time.

Before the scheduled meeting with Ella and Stan, the arbitrating group met to review their plan. In the meeting, many in the group were concerned for Stan. Someone stated, “Stan is such a talented dancer. It would be a shame if Stan stopped attending jams because of Ella.” Because Stan was such a well-known and generally respected member of the community, much of the conversation focused on what they could do to support Stan. The jam facilitator who had called the meeting had an uneasy feeling about many aspects of what was occurring but they had no understanding of how to name the unease or what they could do about it. The jam facilitator felt the urge to offer Ella support but felt reluctant to do so. They were scared of upsetting Stan. No one else in the group displayed concern about what was happening to Ella. The jam facilitator thought that if something was wrong, someone else in the group would certainly step forward and say something.

Response to setting a boundary or a concern
What occurs when a person sets a boundary or comes forward with a concern is a defining aspect of consent culture. When done well,  there is the possibility of growth for all parties involved. This creates a doorway for others to name their boundaries or concerns as they arise in the future. When a community has an experience of this going well over time, establishing boundaries and naming concerns, and working through them becomes a normal and expected aspect of being in a community. However, when it is not done well, the person coming forward is often silenced and traumatized through attack and stigmatization. The person becomes an example of what can happen to someone if they come forward and this deters others from doing so.

In the second scenario, Ella tries to establish a boundary with Stan and Stan uses a number of defensive techniques, either consciously or unconsciously, to push back against the boundary.

Although there are many aspects to successfully processing such scenarios, this article is focused on a grouping of behaviors that often occur in a cluster and work toward consciously and/or unconsciously silencing and discrediting a person. The behaviors I will describe below can be used by all peoples to manipulate others. They can be used individually, but they tend to get used in a cluster. Once several techniques are layered over top of one another, it increases their impact. The response can be triggered by a large range of situations, from someone giving feedback about something they don’t enjoy to boundary violations such as assault or rape. The degree of the boundary setting or concern does not necessarily match the degree of the backlash. For instance, an assertion of a boundary about something most would consider not such a big issue can sometimes invoke a big backlash response.

Behaviors designed to avoid culpability for one’s actions or to protect another from being held accountable

  • Gaslighting
    The term Gaslighting (1) comes from a 1930’s play called “Gas Light” which was adapted into a film. In the story, a husband causes his wife to question her sanity by secretly dimming and brightening gas lights and making noises in the house, and pretending that these things did not happen.  Gaslighting can be difficult to see at first, but it generally refers to a pattern in which the “gas lighter” attempts to make someone doubt themselves and their grasp on reality. Of course, people can disagree over different perceptions of an issue and it is not gaslighting. I give the example, of a child who falls and is crying over the pain and shock of a bloody knee. There may be a disagreement about whether they tripped over a crack or their undone shoelace or whether the cut needs a bandage or not. This is not gaslighting. Gaslight would occur in this instance if a caregiver said to the child “don’t be so sensitive, stand up, you’re not hurt” having the effect to make the child doubt what they are feeling. Specifically, gaslighting occurs when one denies another experiences and contributes toward them doubting their own truth. This can involve telling them they are not feeling what they are feeling and/or blaming them for being “too sensitive” or “irrational” or for “misunderstanding”. A person who starts to doubt their own experience is less likely to state boundaries or concerns.
  • “muddying the waters
    “Muddying the water” (2) involves using lengthy dialogue or emails that contain excessive facts, circular arguments, related but off-topic content, and/or “jumping on” small inconsistencies or inaccuracies in a person’s statements. These are attempts to confuse the issue, to draw focus away from the boundary violation being discussed. 
  • “Powerpathy”
    “Powerpathy” is a tendency for an overbalance of care and sympathy given to a person in a boundary concern that has substantial power while at the same time lacking care and sympathy for the person involved that may hold less power or be in a marginalized position.  There are many forms of powerpathy but a common one is “himpathy” (3). Himpathy involves an overbalance of care and sympathy afforded to a male-identified figure in a boundary dispute. It aligns with the patriarchal power systems and often involves a shocking lack of empathy toward all those reporting sexual harassment that does not identify as male. It’s partner is “whitepathy”, which is an overbalance of care and sympathy towards a white person in a boundary concern at the expense of empathy offered to a black, Indigenous, and/or person of color (BIPOC) individual. The individual who is the subject of the complaint in these situations often expects sympathy and will even act on the part of the victim in order to gain it. 

    I have only named two forms of powerpathy but there are as many forms as there are power imbalances.

    “Powerpathy” in its many forms can also be initiated by an organization or community that is unconsciously or consciously working to protect a powerful individual.

    Once the person who raised the boundary concern sees that all the sympathy is going towards the other party in the conflict, they will often feel intimidated and back down from a situation that feels overwhelmingly not in their favor.
  • Casting the situation as a personal or political issue between two people or groups. 
    Rather than address someone setting a boundary or stating a concern, the story is “rewritten” to be a personal or political battle between two people or two groups. The narrative is shifted away from the boundary being set or the concern being raised and instead seems to become about a personal or political attack by the person coming forward. This can make the person’s concerns appear petty and malicious.  
  • Control
    The person who has crossed a boundary works to control the flow of information, their own public image, the public image of the person coming forwards, and/or the arbitration process. For example, they may want to meet alone with the person and avoid group arbitration that might hold them accountable. They may demand confidentiality when it is not appropriate (asking the person coming forwards to keep the event a secret) or alternatively demand transparency when it is not appropriate (demanding to see all the communication a person coming forwards has had with an arbitration team). They also might put many conditions on the arbitration process that work to silence or scare off the person coming forward with a boundary concern. They may work to control how the community or public sees them and the other person so that they come out in a favorable light. This can involve a smear campaign to damage the public image of the person coming forward, while also working to uplift their own public image or controlling the narrative to push it in a direction that suits them.
  • DARVO  
    A person being held accountable for a boundary-crossing may move through a pattern that can be abbreviated as DARVO (4). This stands for Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender. To escape accountability, the person denies having crossed a boundary, attacks the person bringing forth the boundary concern, and reverses the roles, painting themselves as the victim and the person bringing forth the boundary concern as the offender. This pattern is remarkably effective in silencing the person who has come forward and can be seen in the second fictional example that I give above. Stan denied that they danced in the manner that Ella claimed. Stan then attacked Ella by initiating a campaign to discredit them in the community by bringing into question Ella’s mental health and by sending Ella intimidating emails. Stan then switched up the narrative describing themselves as the victim of Ella’s personal attack against them. If you have had these behaviors aimed at you, you may feel resonance when you read the list. In your lived experiences you know these things do happen and seeing them described can be confirming of this. If you have never experienced these behaviors aimed at you, you may think “this doesn’t happen in my community”. If this is the case I suggest you make a few inquiries with as diverse a group of people as possible. Have them read the list and ask them what they think.

In Ella’s and Stan’s story, these behaviors are the boundary-crossing
In both examples, Ella puts forth a boundary, stating that they did not like their body being manipulated by Stan. In the first example, Stan accepts this boundary and agrees to work toward changing the way they dance with Ella. Stan could have also said that they did not think they should dance together anymore because they preferred dances where people surrendered to Stan’s lifting skill, and by doing so would not have engaged in any defensive tactics. Stan is free to have their preferences on the dance floor and to choose who they dance with. And some people like being manipulated around into big lifts and as long as they consent to that all is well. What is a boundary-crossing, in the second version of the story, is Stan’s abusive reaction to Ella’s request.

How power plays into these behaviors
People who use these techniques successfully are often in a position of authority and power in a community. They can be charismatic, well-liked, and respected, and have numerous allies. Their power can be one reason why the techniques work so effectively to intimidate people. Since they often use these techniques only against people they deem to be an “enemy”, other people in the community will not associate such behaviours with them. Sadly, those that are well-practiced in these techniques get better at using them over time. A person can use these techniques consciously and unconsciously. They may be reflexively protecting themselves and exercising their perceived privilege to do so without even being aware they are doing so. Although these techniques can be used by anyone and anyone can be a target, systemic imbalances in our society often mean marginalized groups are on the receiving end of such backlash. It can be a way for historic power imbalances to be maintained.

We are also all “steeped” in systemic sexism, white supremacy, and ableism (as well as other “isms”) that underpin these abusive behaviors.  Growing up in these systems of oppression, we cannot help but pick up these methods unconsciously as we see them used around us. In our culture, the system is skewed toward certain groups of people… higher pay, better job opportunities, a higher degree of respect, etc.  As such, even without realizing it, a person in a position of power person may feel that they deserve more sympathy in a dispute than others. People that society gives less privilege to may even unconsciously believe they deserve less sympathy than others. For example, I once did not come forwards about a boundary-crossing concern because I was worried about what negative effect it might have on a well-known teacher’s career, never considering how the impact of the boundary-crossing affected my own career. I had internalized society’s view that this famous teacher’s career was more important than mine, and gave my own career less consideration.

If a community is working to enhance and support consent culture they must not only be able to name and recognize the defensive techniques I listed above, but they must also identify power imbalances that underpin these techniques.

We all use these behaviors
I believe that we all use these techniques to a certain degree, and admitting that is part of the solution. It is human nature to protect ourselves and avoid the discomfort of examining one’s own behaviors. Being a mother of two boys, six and ten, I see these techniques in action in our daily home life.  Being in the position of a powerful parent, I find myself unconsciously using these techniques to varying degrees with my sons. On a busy day when a grant is due in the next five minutes and one of my sons slips and falls, I feel the urge to tell them “get up… you are not hurt.”

If I can see and name these behaviors in myself, I have a better chance of seeing and naming them in others. If I understand these behaviors occur on a spectrum of intensity and magnitude, then I can see them when they happen in subtle manners and this helps me better name them in larger contexts. Talking about the small moments helps me practice having conversations and dealing with these behaviors when they occur on a large scale. It normalizes the conversations and gives me faith that naming and disarming these techniques can go well.

When my older son hits my younger son he will often relate a long story with lots of detail about how he was the victim of his brother’s annoying habit of grabbing toys out of his hands and start talking about something that happened the day before. If I am not aware of what is going on, I might put all my attention on my older son and ignore my younger one. Instead, I say, “how about we focus on your brother right now who is crying because his back hurts from being hit”. I then turn to look toward and comfort my younger son, and by so doing I am overriding DARVO and not letting my older son “muddy the waters”. Then after things have settled, I can say to my older son “remember I taught you about DARVO and muddying the waters?” We can together name these elements in the interaction. With the techniques disarmed, my older son can let himself see his younger brother’s tears and respond to him. This then leaves room to talk to my younger son about grabbing toys out of someone’s hand.  And when my sons call me on moments when I use these techniques, (which they do) I know the learning has come full circle! I use these family examples to show that it is possible to normalize everyday conversation about these behaviors.

What can you do?
My examples of my kids fighting occur in our small family bubble. But what does a community do when these techniques are used on a larger scale? If you see someone who came forward being targeted with these behaviors in a boundary dispute and you do nothing, it is a silence that allows these behaviors to flourish. Over time, these behaviors discourage people from setting boundaries when they need to and deter people from coming forward with concerns. 

Numerous articles have been written on how someone can recognize and deal with abusive behaviors on a personal level. But there is less attention given to what other people or a group can do when they witness such behaviours. How can a person or group support someone who is being targeted in such a way? How do you move from being a bystander into action? In the following examples, I use A to indicate the person setting a boundary or coming forwards with a concern and B to indicate the person using the above-described manipulative behaviors.

If you witness abusive behaviors I have listed above you can step in and:

  • Stay on topic in the face of “muddying the waters”
    No matter how much someone “muddies the water”, don’t try and go where they are trying to take you and get lost in confusion. Keep bringing attention back to the challenging subject the person is trying to avoid. Use an active listening technique such as nonviolent communication as a frame to ensure that person-A who is setting a boundary or coming forward with a concern is heard. If some of the info person-B has been bringing forwards seems relevant it can be addressed after A’s issue has been prioritized and settled.

    If you are overseeing a boundary concern, this could look like this: “I am going to step in here because we cannot decide if this info is related or important until we first address the boundary concern that A has brought forwards.”

    Set a boundary that “muddy the waters” as a defensive technique will not be tolerated.
  • Make sure a person being gaslit has a support person
    If you see or suspect gaslighting is occurring, name the technique to the person on the receiving end so they can see it for what it is. If they want, offer to arrange sounding-board support. Find a person they can talk with to help them stay grounded in their truth. Organize this officially if needed.

    If you are overseeing a discussion: “I am going to step in here because I would like to offer space for A to state what the experience was like for them.”

    Set a boundary that gaslighting will not be tolerated.
  • Balance your empathy between both parties in a dispute
    Balance your empathy and care between the person coming forward and the person they are naming. We all deserve care and compassion, so this is not about not giving care and compassion to a transgressor, but is about making sure the care and compassion is not only pointed toward them.

    If you are overseeing a discussion: “I notice a lot of care and empathy going toward Person-B. I want to make sure that this is balanced with care and empathy going toward PersonA. Set a boundary that powerpathy will not be tolerated.
  • Bring the focus back to community issues and themes
    If you see a boundary concern being “cast” as just a personal or political issue, bring attention back towards that which is not personal or political. Ask people to consider if a community agreement was broken. Breaking a community agreement is not personal or political, it is a community matter.

    If you are overseeing a boundary concern:  “Instead of making this personal, let’s return and look at whether a boundary has been crossed that breaks our community agreements.”

    Set a boundary that “painting” the situation as personal or political when it is not will not be tolerated.
  • Don’t fall for DARVO
    If you see that a person who has come forward is being “painted” as the attacker, speak out and name DARVO, and bring attention back towards the challenging situation or boundary concern that started the conversation. Again, this is about balance. This is not about never talking about mistakes a person made in how they came forwards. It is about making sure that it is not the exclusive focus to the effect that an originating boundary concern becomes completely invalidated or forgotten.

    If you are overseeing a boundary concern:  “I notice a pattern here known as DARVO. Rather than continue in this direction, in which Person-B is now cast as the victim, let’s return to Person-A’s boundary concern that has brought us all to this meeting.”

    Set a boundary that DARVO will not be tolerated.
  • Name the use of a cluster of the above techniques as a campaign
    If you see any of these techniques (gaslighting, muddying the waters, powerphathy, casting the issue as a personal, control, or DARVO) used as a cluster against a person coming forward with a boundary concern, name this cluster as a campaign (whether it be conscious or unconscious) to silence and discredit a person.  Partake in all the above-described actions to disarm such a cluster and ask the person on the receiving end if they want a support person to be arranged for them.

    If you are overseeing a boundary concern:  “I am not comfortable with what I see as a campaign against Person A to discredit them. If it continues, this can turn into additional trauma for Person A.  I am therefore redirecting the conversation back to the boundary concern they are bringing forward.”

    Set a boundary that campaigns against a person coming forward with a concern will not be tolerated.
  • Understand the historic use of these techniques on marginalized groups
    If this situation is occurring to a person from a marginalized group, understand the power imbalance involved. When appropriate name the historic tendency towards the use of these techniques to silence and discredit marginalized groups when they do come forward with a boundary concern. Arrange support if it is wanted with a person who has similar lived experiences.

    If you are overseeing a boundary concern:  “There is a historic tendency toward discrediting a person that society or a group offers less power and privilege to when they come forward with a concern. I am worried that might be happening here due the position of power that Person B has in our community. Therefore I want to hear from Person A about what they need under these circumstances, and to also return to resolving the boundary crossing they are bringing forth.”
  • Do not play the game
    Do not engage in verbal sparring with the person using these techniques, as this only serves to draw attention away from the boundary crossing that started the process. This will therefore serve their purpose. Instead, keep directing the conversation back to the boundary concern. This might be harder than you think, as the person may have skill in “hooking” you into an unrelated debate or in getting you riled up.

    If you are overseeing a discussion: Exhale slowly. Calm yourself and redirect the conversation back towards listening to Person A.
  • Educate your community about the use of these techniques
    If you organize or are part of, a group that convenes to address boundary concerns in your community, make sure to educate the group about these potential behaviors designed to avoid culpability.

    If you are overseeing a discussion: Send members of the team this article and/or take time to discuss the article as a group.
  • Organize community training on how to deal with the described behaviors.
    Organize training for a group that convenes to address boundary concerns to provide practice in disarming defensive behaviors described in this article.

    If you are overseeing a discussion: Arrange training for team members. This could involve role-play in which group members practice things like keeping attention focused on the concern being brought forwards in the face of someone “muddying the waters”.
  • Hire experts who are knowledgeable about the use of these techniques
    If you are hiring or arranging an arbitrator to handle a boundary dispute, make sure they are well educated in these potential behaviors designed to avoid culpability and have a plan to deal with them should they occur.
  • Create initiatives to help your community members avoid using defensive tactics
    The more community members are able to stay with emotional discomfort which can arise when someone sets a boundary or is asked to look at their own behaviors, the less likely they will resort to defensive techniques. In the first example, Stan felt safe enough to listen to Ella and consider their point of view. Stan’s nervous system was able to stay with any discomfort that may have arisen from a less experienced dancer giving them feedback.  Stan, therefore, did not go into reflexive alarm. In the second example, Stan’s nervous system perceived Ella’s feedback as an attack and Stan went into fight mode. So the question is, what initiatives will help your community members build resiliency so they can stay with the discomfort of considering a boundary concern without reflexive defense?

    What this might look like: Organize a “Staying with Discomfort” workshop as an offering to people in positions of privilege and power. However, it may be a challenge to interest this demographic in going to such a workshop. Those that historically have avoided such discomforts may also reflexively avoid going to such a workshop.

The fragility that can arise from power and privilege
Why might it be harder for a person in a position of power to “stay-with” their discomfort when facing a boundary concern?  When a person on the lower end of a power imbalance expresses a boundary or brings up a concern, a person of privilege and power might not have practice in processing such things.  The person with power and privilege might be so used to getting their way that the experience of someone challenging them is unsettling. Those on the higher end of a power imbalance may also consciously or unconsciously expect to be serviced and cared for by those they deem to be lower than them. They may think of the person as an extension of their needs. For these reasons, it might be unexpected or even shocking that someone who they see as “beneath” them sets a boundary, gives them feedback, or expresses a concern. It can feel like an attempt to topple their worldview or the status quo where they come out on top. This can be alarming to their nervous system.  The alarm often happens quickly and unconsciously because the nervous system works reflexively, like how someone pulls their hand away from a fire without conscious thought.

The work for people in positions of power is to “grow” their ability to stay with discomfort instead of reflexively moving into defense and to unearth the power imbalances and unconscious biases that may underpin their reactions. This is a call-in not just for people to whom society has given power and privilege, without them necessarily asking for it but includes those who hold power for example through community leadership, being skilled dancers, or being a dance-writer that people look towards This includes me. I am white and although I did not ask for it society currently gives me both power and privilege for being white. I am also a writer who people look towards and I have leadership roles in my community. And although these roles intersect with the disempowerment that often comes from being a woman and having disabilities, I still need to “stay on top of” doing the work because of the power I do have.

The bystander effect
The bystander effect (5) can affect a person’s ability to step forwards into action when they witness abusive behaviors. A series of classic experiments by Latané and Darley demonstrated that whether you help someone who needs support or not depends mostly on how many people are around you. The more people, the less likely you will step into action. Two factors are believed to play into the bystander effect. One is the diffusion of responsibility – with many people present, the responsibility is shared throughout the group and no one feels that it is their job to do anything. The other is the urge to conform to the group by doing the same as others. In situations that are unclear, scary, or chaotic we tend to look to others to decide on the correct action. We may follow others’ desire to play it safe. When you witness a person in a position of power or authority abusing another it can be exceedingly hard to move into action because of the fear of what might happen if you cross them. This is especially true if no one else has stepped forward and you would be the first person in a group to do so. The Jam facilitator in the second Ella/Stan story experienced bystander effect that immobilized them from taking action.

Types of support
Private/Personal: There are different types of support you can offer to someone when they are facing defensive behaviors. The first is to offer support privately. Many times when a friend is facing such behaviors I have offered behind-the-scenes support. I have not stood up publicly in support of them in these cases where I do not have their consent to do so, they ask me not to or it feels like a risk I’m not prepared to take.

Public but alone: The other type of support is publicly taking a stand. Please know that when someone stands up alone in support of someone else facing these defensive behaviors, it involves the greatest level of risk. But it often takes one person standing up to create some momentum that can turn the tide.

Public and together: The next type of support is to stand up with a group to disarm defensive techniques. Being part of a group increases safety, as the effort involved and the repercussions are shared between all. Working as a group can also be a powerful tool in setting a standard for a group or organization.

Risks and when and who should take them
The fear is real. By moving into action you risk having a similar backlash acted out on you. This backlash can escalate to life-threatening levels for yourself and the person you are supporting. Therefore, when moving from bystander to action you need to assess the level of risk for yourself and for the person you are supporting and move into action with the consent of the person you are supporting. When it is not safe to do so the best course of action is to offer support privately. Sometimes a cis-gendered and/or white ally to whom society affords a certain level of power and privilege may be the best person to “take the charge”, because in naming and working to disarm backlash behaviours, they may face lesser risk than others.

But what about false claims?
Some who read this article might say, “but what if a false accusation is made as a personal attack against someone?” Suppose in our example above Ella accused Stan of inappropriately touching them during a dance when in fact, Stan did not touch Ella in any inappropriate manner. Then wouldn’t Stan’s backlash responses be warranted? Firstly, false accusations of sexual misconduct and rape are considered to be uncommon. For example in the case of rape, false accusations statistically occur in 5% of cases.  In her article Almost No One Is Falsely Accused of Rape, Katie Heaney (6) questions this figure, stating that even when someone recants their accusation, it does not necessarily mean the rape did not happen.  Also, if the police do not find evidence of a rape, it does not mean the rape did not happen. Heaney states that the number of truly false accusations is probably much lower than 5% due to systemic reasons that bias people to jump to the conclusion that an accusation must be false. Heaney gives an example in which a rape accusation was deemed to be a false accusation because the woman had let the man take off her ski boots and this meant that the sex that occurred afterward was consensual. 

Although false accusations may be rare, they still can occur in contact improvisation communities. And if they occur, I still stand by my call to move into action to mitigate behaviours designed to manipulate people. These behaviors are abusive. Using these techniques will make unraveling the truth more difficult in any arbitration process. Mitigating such behaviours on both sides evens the playing field. For example, by defusing the pull towards “powerpathy” you will be giving both sides more balanced compassion and care. By naming and/or not falling for controlling behaviors aimed at changing the narrative to a person’s favour, you are giving an arbitration process a fair chance. The truth will not arrive through manipulation of the situation to one person’s favour.

Community moving into action and setting standards for behavior
Despite the challenges, we can start to notice, name, and disarm gaslighting, muddying the waters, powerpathy, making it personal, controlling the process, and DARVO on both small and large scales. 

A strong skill set and practice in disarming and putting up a boundary against abusive behaviors is needed to support consent culture and anti-oppression work. Guidelines created to support consent culture and anti-oppression work are just words on paper without actions to support them.

We can:

  • start to notice, name and disarm these behaviors whenever we use them ourselves. 
  • learn to stay with the discomfort of being asked to examine our behaviors rather than reflexively move to defend ourselves. 
  • normalize talking about these behaviors on the micro level, so we get lots of practice doing so.
  • find the bravery to step into action (when it is safe to do so) on both the micro and macro levels when we witness the use of defensive behaviors. 
  • create policies designed to deal with boundary concerns that include educating people and groups about the use of these techniques, along with mitigation strategies. 
  • recognize that all sides of a boundary concern deserve a fair and compassionate process. 

I believe that building a culture where people know that using these techniques will not work and is not tolerated is a vital part of providing a fair process for all.

REAson d’etre dance’s Resources
Since the writing of this post REAson d’etre dance’s weekly jam has moved to Tuesday nights and the guidelines have been renamed “RDD Tuesday Dance Jam Guidelines”. They can be downloaded here: Also the “Newcomer’s Tip Sheet” can also be found on this page

Kathleen Rea


Kathleen Rea danced with Canada’s Ballet Jorgen, National Ballet of Canada & Tiroler Landestheater (Austria). She fell in love with contact improvisation 22 years ago & has been involved in the community ever since. She has choreographed over 40 dance works and has been nominated for 5 DORA awards. Kathleen has a learning disability which means writing takes 6 times longer than average. It is one of life’s mysteries that despite this struggle she loves writing and is a published author (The Healing Dance). She has a Master’s in Expressive Arts with a minor in Psychology. She is a certified teacher of the Axis Syllabus and Buteyko Breathing. She is the director of REAson d’etre dance, a Toronto not-for-profit dance company that is contact improvisation based and produces a weekly jam, a Film Fest, and dance theatre productions. She has autism & works to educate the world about neurodiversity. She developed the well-read REAson d’etre dance Dance Jam Guidelines (download here) which over the past 20 years have influenced consent culture in the contact improvisation worldwide community. She also is the founder of the Contact Improv Consent Culture Blog. Kathleen Rea’s Demo Reel

End notes:

  1. This definition of  Gaslighting is paraphrased and inspired by the article Gaslighting: “How to Recognize this form of Emotional Abuse” published on MAY 27, 2020 – by Jessica Howard.
  2. To read more about “muddying the waters” see: “Learn to Recognize 26 Covert Abuse Tactics”, number three in the list.,thinking%20and%20not%20making%20sense.
  3. “Feminism 101: What is Himpathy?” Written by Lara Washington and published on April 13, 2019: Himpathy was coined by Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne as “a matter of focused sympathy toward powerful men in alignment with the status quo and patriarchal power systems that sustain it, as well as a lack of empathy toward women who make claims against these men.”
  4. Quote for the article “Darvo” Changing Minds website “DARVO“ When wrong-doers are confronted with their acts (which may be criminal), they show a pattern that can be abbreviated as DARVO. This stands for Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender. The person thus denies having committed the offense, attacks the accuser, and reverses the roles, painting themself as the victim and their actual victim as the actual guilty party [the offender].”
  5. To read more about by-stander effect see: “The bystander effect.
  6. Paraphrased from Katie Heaney’s article “Almost No One Is Falsely Accused of Rape” published by The Cut in 2018.

2 thoughts on “Moving from Bystander to Action: Responding to Manipulative Behaviors

Add yours

  1. Thank you for your words,
    It has brought up such a range of emotions and memories.
    I am a continuing survivor of domestic abuse ( I say continuing because it is an ongoing battle)
    After finally involving police in my situation, what should have been the beginning of the end of abuse and victimization for me, turned out to be a journey I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
    I lost friends and became a pariah at my children’s school, not because they didn’t believe me, but because it was uncomfortable, messy and they chose to avoid me and my children ( who now were undesirable in some way as play date material). I was asked whether it was really worth it and how would be able to provide kids with the same lifestyle, was it “really that bad”… my parenting was taken into question and of course CAS is involved as it is domestic abuse in the home. My children were brainwashed by their narcissistic father who was now the victim to them and others , and there is no real help for women in this situation, it is set up to silence and excuse the abusers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: