Handing off the Football: Fear in Batterer in Batterer Intervention

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I remember playing “tackle the man with the ball” during recess in 5th grade. I hated this game. I didn’t mind “tackling the man with the ball” but I was terrified of being the one getting tackled. I did not want my classmates to know I was afraid, so occasionally, I would muster the courage to grab the ball and run. The blood thirsty mob would join in pursuit, and just as I was about to be tackled, I would throw the football over my head, high up into the air, and someone else would pick up the ball and run.  I had effectively given my fear away to someone else.

My work with those who batter reminds me of “tackle the man with ball”.  Many who batter go to great lengths to look brave, courageous or manly, but when the façade wears thin and fear becomes intolerable, anger, violence and threats are useful tactics to hand off the fear to others “like a football”. This need to give adverse feelings away to others is a direct result of growing up in “The River of Cruelty” where fear is considered weakness. 

In initial meetings with participants, “I am not afraid of anything” is a common pronouncement.  They sincerely believe this to be true. However, when we explore their arrest for domestic violence, it becomes easy to identify fear as a driving force in the incident as dominating and controlling behavior is a common example of handing off fear.  

Stories abound in BIP classes of how the freedom to have feelings was removed at a young age through expectations, abuse and cruelty.

Digging a little deeper, it is not difficult to learn how these participants developed the belief that fear is weakness.  Boys experience a great amount of social pressure to not show fear or sadness.  Many people who batter grew up in abusive households where they were explicitly told things like, “No boy of mine is going to be a coward”, or “if you are going to cry, I will give you something to cry about”.  Stories abound in BIP classes of how the freedom to have feelings was removed at a young age through expectations, abuse and cruelty.

As those who batter become less afraid of fear, cruelty fades, and those around them become safer.

Of course, we are all afraid at times. Acting as if we are not afraid, and going to extremes to demonstrate our lack of fear only serves to confirm fear’s existence and puts others in danger.Educating participants about their own fear, along with other adverse emotions, is a relatively high-level facilitation skill that takes time to master. Facilitators must be able to sit comfortably with their own fear before they can effectively teach someone else to do the same. Fortunately, there is a pay-off for this hard work! As facilitators begin mastering the skill of working with adverse feelings in their groups, they begin to see higher levels of engagement and vulnerability among those they serve. “Handing off the football” is one way that the “River of Cruelty” continues to flow. As those who batter become less afraid of fear, cruelty fades, and those around them become safer.  

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