Me and my new BFF Assertiveness

Up until a year go I barely knew the meaning of the word "assertiveness", and now it has become my personal goal. But like a diet, or training for a marathon, it’s proving very hard for me. It’s constant work I have to “put in” every day.

I’m going to list some tips for becoming more assertive and talk about how much I am enjoying the best change in my life, but I hope this can me more than a “10 steps to be more assertive” kind of article. I hope it can help you see things a little bit differently, or understand you’re not alone in this journey.

Being unassertive

I would start justifying why I am not a very assertive person by blaming my Catholic upbringing, but it would be a lie. My parents are not really that religious and I was not brought up “in fear of God”. But I think somehow some of the values that have been instilled in me were not quite right: we seemed to always “have to put up with it” or “have to do it because it’s your duty” or (the most damaging one I think) “you can’t say that because it will spark a family war”. Since I finally moved away from my home town, I have started seeing this in a slightly different perspective. I understand that while we were keeping quiet the rest of the family would always get their way and me, my mum and my dad ended up accumulating a lot of anger and resentment, not only towards my relatives, but also towards each other. Probably because we were frustrated by the impossibility of being assertive.

Growing up I applied unassertiveness to pretty much everyone I met. I managed to start relationships which made me very uncomfortable, just because I could not express my disagreement or discomfort about even simple things like “we always meet at your house rather than alternating a bit”.

I got to the point where I had (and still have, but with a much quieter voice now) a full blown accusation lawyer in my head stopping me from saying most things, because it would sound “too childish”, or “too stupid”, or “too nasty”, or “[fill the gap with anything you can imagine]”. The end result was that I would never speak up.

I ended up in situations I really hated, developing a sense of anger (which really was anger towards myself) and unhappiness, pretty much always ending up being fed up with the other person or job. I felt like the whole situation was so beyond repair (as I had kept all my disagreements quiet, they had piled up immensely) and the only way out was...out.

On my journey to Assertiveness Land, I also have met a few pretty obnoxious people I had absolutely no idea how to handle. I always compared them to the big monster at the end of a video game level.

If this sounds like you, then you’ve got a friend. So I'll try and help.

Two types of people

First of all I need to explain couple of basic concepts. Just discovering those has changed my life.

What is assertiveness? It’s expressing our thoughts and opinions in a firm and appropriate way without being aggressive, respecting the other person’s point of view and needs but still keeping our priorities in mind, and by saying NO without feeling guilty.

Easy, right?

It will become easier when you start changing the way you see others. That big monster at the end of the level is instead just being aggressive: they might speak so strongly, you feel like you won’t be able to object; it’s either their way or no way; they are implying they are better than you.

And how about that very annoying person who is not being very direct, but implying so very subtly that they are right and you’re wrong, or much better than you? This is my least favourite (as if the aggressive behaviour was any better!). You feel like “you can’t quite put your finger on it”, you’re not too sure he meant to offend you or he’s “just saying” so I still don’t know how to react… Well this person is clearly being passive aggressive.

I have not yet mastered how to manage either type of people, but I started by shifting the focus slightly. I saw every comment they would make as a personal “attack” and started really getting worked up while trying to work out “what had I done to get that person to say/do that to me!” Well the answer is quite often “nothing”, because that’s just how that person is and that person is most likely never going to change.

The biggest mistake I was (and still keep on) making was to assume that if I could change the way I behaved, the other person would change too. Maybe I can make them an extra cup of tea, maybe I can do a bit of their job for them, maybe I can buy them a little present. Well that never went well. I had usually a positive reaction there and then: a smile! A compliment! Followed by the same old bullshit after not very long. What was going on?

When I realised that’s how that person is and that she’s never going to change, the whole world started to shift slightly for me. You start thinking “well, if that’s not going to change, then I’m not wrong in trying to say X or do Y, so I’ll better just say it/do it and if they won’t react well, well, it’s their problem”. By shifting this responsibility, I have had a huge weight getting off my shoulders. I honestly feel like a much lighter, serene person. I am beside myself with joy at the results of just a simple epiphany.

So being assertive is right in the middle between the two behaviours (aggressive and passive aggressive) and it’s where we need to take ourselves.

Let’s communicate assertively

The key is how we communicate our ideas.

  • Don’t be afraid of what the consequences of what you want to say might be. Start by disagreeing slightly (even if you don’t feel strong about it) with somebody about something simple, like where to eat for dinner, and start watching for reactions. You’ll find out most of them will be quite relaxed and you’ll find people agreeing with you quicker than you can say “Assertiveness”. I also think that by practicing assertiveness and therefore sometimes disagreeing with somebody more and more, they will get used to you being open to this type of interaction. They will be more likely to expect it from you in the future, so it will get easier and easier.
  • Worrying about what others might think of us (my biggest blocker) will make it very hard to be assertive. Don’t let it trick you!
  • “I” is better than “you” to communicate assertively: try and say “When you do ##something## I feel angry/upset because ###”. By stating the reasons why you are feeling a certain way and the scenario, just stating facts without exaggerating, you can make sure that the person you are talking to will understand everything and you don’t become aggressive.
  • Stay calm but firm – this is like the nirvana of assertiveness because I find it very hard to recognise that the other person is being either aggressive or passive aggressive. I just get caught up in the moment, by either digging my own grave or not really knowing what to say in particular towards passive aggressiveness. I guess it would help to take a minute and really question what is going on before answering or ignoring the situation.

But as I said, I am still really working through this list and trying to put all these tips in practice. There are times when the “alert” bells ring and I can recognise this as an opportunity to express what I want and to be assertive. And when I do react in an assertive way, I feel amazing. The fear of what people would say is completely overshadowed by the joy of being able to say what I think, and that there are not going to be hours and hours afterwards of me moaning with myself about not having expressed my feelings or having said yes when I wanted to say no. I am suddenly lighter and free!

I have managed to start relationships where I am free to say what I feel and the other person is getting more and more used to me expressing my feelings.

I’ve realised it’s mainly what gets left unsaid that causes the most trouble and anxiety in me. Once a thought is out in the open and you have explained the whole situation, you have made the other person aware of exactly what you feel and why and you have given them an opportunity to do the same with you. There’s no room for doubts, or unspoken truths, so there will be no resentment or unfinished business.

This might sound unbelievable, but I now have a bit more spare time as a result of not constantly worrying about what others are going to say or about unresolved (in my head) situations. I also feel less anxious and I can enjoy life more . On top of this, while “practicing” I have often found that when I said what I thought, the other person would actually say “Oh sorry that was my fault”. What an expected surprise!

I have had plenty of positive assertiveness experiences so far, but the big monsters are still out there, or, even worse, the people who are abusing our un-assertive behaviour and are used to us never speaking up. I would say that this, combined with a passive aggressive behaviour, still makes a perfect confrontation bomb for me.

Cutting off dry branches

As part of my journey to assertiveness I had to re-assess the all the relationships I had. I tried to imagine how I could tell them what I really think and how I could consistently stay assertive with them. But where I had accepted fundamentally wrong behaviours like somebody constantly wanting to argue backwards and forwards, or letting other relatives control me through my parents, I realised change was going to be quite impossible, especially with people of older age, set in their ways and family dynamics I really could not find the skills in me to break.

So I had to end it. As sad as this is (admitting to myself I actually still can’t be that assertive to just deal with any situation or person), there are just some relationships that have gone way beyond repair. Even where the other person had communicated to me that they had changed, I still felt that going back, meant going back to that person I was that I don’t want to be anymore.

Post confrontation

Somehow though I am still very scared and unsure about the next phase: the moving forward. Sure it’s easy enough to be assertive about a food/restaurant choice, or a “let’s meet my part of town rather than yours”, but when it comes to big messages I am still scared.

If I'm talking with a person I might have offended when she said #that#, I can’t see myself having a relaxed relationship after that, like nothing happened.

Well, this is as far as I have gotten, I am afraid. I hope to be practicing a lot more assertiveness and to be able to cross the “what is there post confrontation?” bridge soon. I hope by sharing my experience I have given you some courage and inspiration. If you are to take a lesson from this very long article, I hope it is that you just need to stop and look at things differently (in particular why people are saying/doing something – are they just being aggressive because that’s how they are?). Say what you want to say, be the person you want to be, because it really is going to be like trying to make it through a crowded passage: as much as people might nudge you as you go past, they will make space for you and let you through and you might end up realising it was easier than you expected...

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