When someone steps on our toes, we react quickly to relieve the pain. But when someone steps on our feelings, we often feel helpless. We may not immediately grasp what hurts, and when we do, we may not grasp that we have the right to protest. Even when we’re clear that we want to stop the offending behavior, we may not know how to express it.
If we want someone to treat us well, we must make the effort to explain our side of the story, giving them clear information about our needs. If they don’t hear it from us, they must guess. In low pressure situations, the other person may guess reasonably well. But in situations with more emotional intensity, such as in relationships or at work, we may feel that the other person is hurting us, but we don’t know how to press our position. Instead of opening channels of communication to tell the other person what we need, we pull back, struggling with frustration. Our accumulated resentment makes us feel trapped and victimized. We blame them for our bad feelings, and may lash out aggressively.
Gracefully asserting our own needs is an important life skill that provides many benefits. When we skillfully assert ourselves, we let people know where we stand, making it easier for them to work and relate with us effectively. In the natural order of things, we all ought to give enough information to others to help them understand how to behave towards us. After all, we all depend on each other in work, family and community. But not everyone has good assertiveness skills.
May be surprised to realize value of these skills
Most of us believe we have our fair share of assertiveness, and are willing to stand up for our rights. When we look more closely we may be surprised to recognize situations in which we inappropriately allow others to have their way, gradually turning us into victims. Here are some examples. As mothers we believe it is our job to pick up after our sons, who, when they grow up expect their wives to offer the same service. As workers we feel trapped into agreement when a boss makes a sexually or racially demeaning comment, tacitly consenting to this behavior. In a relationship, we expect our partner to know exactly what we need, and we become frustrated when he doesn’t correctly read our mind. As citizens, we feel like victims because our government doesn’t behave towards us as we wish, and yet we don’t participate in the political process or even vote.
When we feel helpless, we often turn to fantasies of blame, revenge and rescue. These fantasies, in turn, block effective action. To break this cycle of victimization, we need to explore ways to assert our right to feel better, making effort to change the situation that disturbs us. Even if our actions don’t completely change the external circumstances, the satisfaction of making the effort helps relieve our feelings of helplessness.
Our beliefs about our own rights began in the earliest training ground of our childhood. When we were helpless infants our caregivers kept us alive by supplying food, shelter and emotional warmth. To get what we wanted, as babies we cried, and when we could speak, we learned to ask. Ideally our caregivers reassured us that our needs were important, and taught us how to express these needs clearly. If our primary caregivers were too busy, or emotionally distant, we learned our needs weren’t important. Worse yet, we may have been punished when we asked for help, and discovered that expressing or even having needs is dangerous.
We’ve carried our childhood training with us for years, and only gradually we discover that these old beliefs may be at the heart of frustrations we feel now. We can improve our relationships and effectiveness in the world by filling in the gaps in our childhood training, breaking free of old habits that prevent us from clearly expressing our needs. As we explore our childhood, we can coach ourselves to realize that those damaging or invalidating situations are long past, and that as adults we deserve love and nurturing.
Expressing needs improves relationships
Assertiveness is not just about selfish needs, but rather about clear social interactions. We learn how to identify our needs, and understand how they fit in with the rights and responsibilities of people around us. Are we being too demanding? Or are we allowing those around us to be too demanding?
These issues come up often in relationships for example between a parent and a child, or between the two members of a couple. In close relationships, we depend on the other person to give us the things we most need, such as attention, love, and service. These expectations, heavily loaded with emotion, rarely get the open discussion they deserve. Unspoken expectations breed frustration. When our needs aren’t met we blame others, and yet don’t put our feelings into words. As we gain insights into our process we begin to realize that ignoring or hiding our needs creates tension in our relationships. Learning to verbalize our needs simply and effectively may be one of the most important steps we can make to improve our comfort in the world, especially in our relationships.
Instead of being silent, and expecting others to read our minds, we learn to openly discuss our needs, understand the needs of the people with whom we are dealing, and agree on behavior that satisfies both. Just as we would expect others to check with us about what we need, we become interested in understanding other people. We begin to understand more compassionately the areas in which they are unable to express themselves, and look at situations from their point of view, as well as our own. And as we listen more carefully, we reduce tension, increase intimacy and safety and deepen relationships. Assertiveness allows us to give and receive emotional support and validation in a mutually beneficial exchange.
Men and women respond differently to their own and each other’s needs. Young girls traditionally grow up assuming that other people’s needs are more important than theirs. As a result, women may find themselves in unbalanced situations, serving others without getting their own needs met.
Men, on the other hand, are accustomed to ask for actions and services. But when it comes to expressing or even recognizing their own emotional needs they are much less skilled. Men are typically taught from an early age to hide and ignore vulnerable feelings. Boys ruthlessly mock each other for showing even a small amount of pain, and so boys grow up with the understanding that pain must be hidden. Without contact with their own vulnerability, unable even to put feelings into words, they often seem disengaged from relationships. This emotional clumsiness is compounded by the old social code that men grow up believing they are entitled to service, and when they don’t get it they feel thwarted. Instead of openly sharing their needs and vulnerability, by social custom they respond aggressively, creating tension and distress in themselves and the people with whom they are relating. Their bottled up emotions and aggressive responses cut them off from participation in the rich spectrum of emotional discourse.
These imbalances cause painful misunderstanding between the sexes, pain that can be alleviated by improving assertiveness. Women have worked hard in recent decades to get in touch with and clearly state their own needs. Despite this progress, these cultural traditions run deep, and in many parts of the world are unchanged. Men, on the other hand, have only made slight progress in understanding their emotional vulnerability. Just as women have worked to gain more confidence in their actions, men need to gain confidence in their emotions.
When couples open up channels of clear communication in which both partners feel safe in expressing their emotions, relationships become more trusting, intimate, mutually supporting and nurturing. With more open communication, men and women blast through their feelings of victimization and reduce the frustration that leads to aggression.
Roots of assertiveness in self-esteem
While we may believe that other people have the right to be treated with respect and caring, we may not consider ourselves to be worthy of that respect for ourselves. We can’t expect others to respect us, nor can we give them clear guidelines for our needs, if we don’t believe we deserve it. At the heart of healthy self-esteem lies the belief that we have the right to carve out our own safe place in the world. Without this fundamental belief, we can’t apply appropriate effort to our own growth. If our beliefs don’t include our own rights, we should seek deeper insight into the origins of our self-downing attitude.
In areas that we felt wounded or misunderstood as children, we may continue as adults to assume that others will not, or cannot meet our needs. By reviewing the childhood environment in which we formed our identity, we can challenge the message that we were not worthy of this minimum level of personal satisfaction. Also by exploring our adult beliefs about our identity and mission in the universe, we can develop a deeper appreciation for our place in the human family.
Parents fostering self-worth
As parents, we need to realize how important it is to send messages of assertiveness to our kids, and appreciate that this is an especially difficult parenting task. Even when we have good intentions, we need to be aware of the way our actions either promote or stunt our kids’ ability to stand up for themselves. Naturally, when our kids are young, we expect them to obey us. Later, as they develop ideas of their own, we need to gracefully let go of some of our authority and encourage independent thinking. This is a difficult process with much room for error, made even more difficult by the natural tendency to remain stuck with the habits we developed when they were little.
At any age, it’s important to listen to our kids, because by listening we teach them that what they think and feel matters. Building habits of two-way communication that emphasize listening as much as speaking, we empower them to speak and believe in themselves. When kids feel we are ignoring them, or worse, giving them advice every time they speak, they withdraw, and take their communication elsewhere. By giving them the message, early and often, that we listen carefully to what they say, they feel heard and understood.
In addition to the training we offer them when we listen, they also learn from watching us as actors in the world. When we expect other people to respect our boundaries, and we respect theirs, our kids learn from us. When we assert these rights in the family and in the community, our children learn by our example that each person must make the effort to define and build their own safety and energy.
Coaching, rehearsing, positive feedback
As we recognize the patterns that have held us back, and trapped us in a victim role, we embrace a vision that includes us as more active players in our own lives. But before we can speak our mind, we must unlearn fundamental habits and beliefs. Growing out of those old habits is hard. It’s easy to stay in the background, and allow the world to go on around us, and much harder to put ourselves forward, and find the courage to calmly explain what we need.
Like other skills, to become assertive we must learn methods, then put them into practice. Initially we may feel awkward and make mistakes. But because we recognize the importance of this skill, we pick ourselves up, and try again, remembering to praise ourselves for every effort and small victory. As in any new role, rehearsing, either in the safety of our own visualization or in a safe, supportive environment can give us insights and get us ready for the real thing.
To accomplish these tasks of personal change, we need help. Self-help books and tapes provide new ideas and perspectives. Counseling helps us get in touch with issues that hold us back, and gives us support and feedback that helps us change. Twelve Step organizations like Adult Children of Alcoholics and Al-anon help us outgrow the damaging issues of childhood and family alcoholism. Because lack of assertiveness creates such an imbalance of power in women’s lives, training for this valuable skill is offered in women’s mental health and self-help organizations.
Becoming more assertive may at first seem uncomfortable. Our old assumptions that others will read our mind, or that we’re not worthy, seem so familiar. In contrast, when we request our needs to be met, we may at first feel selfish. Of course, going overboard and trying to put ourselves in the center of the universe is not the solution. Rather, now we seek the benefits of a balanced approach. As we openly review our point of view, and learn to communicate and negotiate, we can enhance many situations that might have been causing us pain.
Assertiveness replaces unproductive habits such as venting and complaining. When we get in touch with our needs, we can work to achieve them, expanding our horizons to include our hopes and dreams.
See also: Anger, Blame, Boundaries, Child abuse, Child within, Couples, Men, Responsibility, Self-esteem, Shame, Victimization, Women
Your Perfect Right, assertiveness and equality in your life and relationships by Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons
Asserting Your Self, a practical guide for positive change by Sharon Bower and Gordon Bower
The Six Pillars of Self-esteem by Nathaniel Branden
Codependent No More, How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself by Melody Beattie
Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child by John Bradshaw