For the majority of my life, conversations would typically go like this…
Friend: Let’s go out for dinner tonight!
Me: I’ve actually had a headache all day, and think I need to go home and relax.
Friend: Awww, come on! Maybe if you eat you’ll feel better!
Me (mumbling, avoiding eye contact): No, I don’t think that would help…
Friend: Pleeeeease, just pop an Advil, I’ve been dying to try this new place, it will be great!
Me (sighing): Oh…ummm, sure. Ok…I guess.
It’s a little bit pathetic. Yet holding my ground on even a simple issue like the above (let alone something more important!), makes my anxiety sky rocket. I feel crippled with guilt, assume I have no right to say no, and that if I did there would be dire consequences. It was as though saying no would risk the entire friendship itself (not exactly a reasonable conclusion to jump to, yet it’s how my mind works).
I pride myself on being the chill one, the flexible one, and not being the type of person to make it all about myself. Frankly, I’m worried it might even be the only reason some people even like me. I’ve had people comment before that they “love how passive I am”, and for some reason I accept this as a compliment (even though it’s not). But I love being the nice one, almost as if it gives me some sort of moral high ground. I’d be horrified if someone referred to me as pushy, selfish, or any other similar adjective.
Unfortunately, sometimes, I am faking it. And working overtime to maintain this persona is leading to feelings of resentment. Of course, when these feelings bubbled up, I would push them down, tell myself I was being a jerk, and that what I was feeling wasn’t ok. But I’m realizing this is just going to lead to bigger and bigger problems, over time. Not to mention that I’m not sure how much longer I can keep up the charade.
As part of my ongoing, personal-interest research, I stumbled across more and more information on assertiveness, and was actually a little shocked at what I found. I not only realized that I was sorely lacking in basic communication skills, but also learned how fundamentally important assertiveness skills really are.
I’ll admit that I never really understood what the word “assertive” meant. I thought it just meant someone would could clearly communicate what they wanted. It didn’t sound like a big deal. But it is. Essentially, if we consider a spectrum of communication, with passive on one end, and aggressive on the other, assertive would be the sweet spot in the middle.
Passive people tend to disregard their own needs and feelings, while aggressive people tend to disregard the needs and feeling of others. Assertive people can clearly communicate what they want, and set boundaries, while respecting the needs and feelings of other people. The basis is pretty simple, yet it’s actually pretty difficult to put it into practice.
It’s incredibly important to try, though. This article from the Mayo Clinic even goes so far as to state that over time, not being assertive can lead to low self-esteem, feelings of victimization, and a desire to exact revenge (well, that’s no good!) Thankfully, I’m not actually vengeful at this point 😉. That being said, it was a relief to know that my feelings were normal, and made total sense. By not clearly communicating what I want, I’m basically telling other people, and myself, that I don’t have the right to stand up for myself, and that what I want doesn’t matter.
I’ve been really paying attention to the way I communicate with people, recently. I was kind of disappointed to notice myself dangerously swinging between passive and aggressive, and totally skipping over the assertive stop. It’s funny that I always prided myself on being an honest person, and yet I am not exactly being authentic.
In an effort to be likeable, I am continually saying yes to things that I don’t want to do, even if I am annoyed on the inside. Naturally, this piles up, and I hit a point where I just can’t take it anymore. Unfortunately, by the time I try and set a boundary or express myself, I am not as respectful nor eloquent as I should have been. I then feel even more guilty, tell myself I am mean, and it re-enforces the idea that I should have just went along with what the other person wanted, and avoided any conflict – it’s a vicious cycle.
I see other people speak assertively like it’s nothing, and I am envious. I was waiting in line at my workplace cafeteria one day and saw a group of people shout over to a co-worker, and enthusiastically ask her to join them at their table. She simply replied: “Thanks, but I have my book I wanted to read, so am just going to sit over here”.
It was something so bloody small and yet to me it was mind-blowing. There was no way I could fathom saying that. I would have worried about coming across as rude, and therefore would have forced myself to sit with the group. And instead of returning from my lunch break recharged and refreshed, I would have felt drained and resentful. Which wouldn’t have benefited anyone.
To push this further, hypothetically, let’s say I went to the cafeteria daily. I likely would have continually sat with the group of people, if invited, even if I had really preferred to read. Over time, the irritation and exhaustion would have festered, and there could have been a point where I was asked to sit with the group and randomly snapped: “My god, can I just having one freakin’ lunch to myself to sit and read, is that really too much to ask?! Leave me alone!”. Ok, I probably wouldn’t be that extreme, but I would likely be rather abrupt. Which would obviously come as a shock to the group. They would likely wonder where on earth my little outburst was coming from. I might come across as irrational, moody, or unstable to an outsider who had no idea about the ongoing internal dilemma.
Now that I’m analyzing these types of situations more carefully, and becoming more aware of my behaviour and thought patterns, I am challenging my thinking and viewing the situations a little differently. For example, my guilt in the dinner invite scenario seems fairly misplaced. It doesn’t seem like the friend is having any regard for my feelings in the above situation, and in reality being a little manipulative (even if it’s unconscious). It wasn’t really fair to myself to have forced it, but it also wasn’t fair to blame my friend, and act like she had, either. The reality is that I was caving to avoid having any unpleasant feelings that I didn’t know how to handle. Which is my responsibility to work on.
I’m not going to delve too deeply into how I could have handled the situation differently. Not only because we would be here for hours, but also because there is already a wealth of information out there. If you’re like me, and need specific tools, examples, and direction, I would highly recommend the Centre For Clinical Interventions: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/. They have a very in-depth and practical guide to assertiveness. It provides specific language, breaks down examples, and goes into a discussion on tone, body language, and other stuff I wouldn’t have even considered. It might seem like an intimidatingly-long read; but it’s not, and was has been highly valuable to me. I am the type of person who needs something concrete & practical, and found exactly what I needed.
The bottom line is that I’m learning assertive behaviour is healthy, and benefits the relationship as a whole. Going forward, I’m actually really looking forward to refining these skills. It doesn’t mean that I’ll never do something that I don’t really feel like doing, or that people will always respect me when I say no. But, I can at least start to recognize that I have a lot more control and choice than I think I do. And that’s pretty exciting.