becoming assertive

by reader request, i’m going to try to address the topic of assertiveness. where to start, where to start…

i think the first thing you have to decide is do i deserve what i want? do i deserve what i need? to some people that sounds like a silly question, but to people pleasers, the passive, those who grew up minnesota nice, those who were taught to be seen and not heard, those sensitive people who have had their preferences and opinions systematically devalued… this is a big giant question. and beyond this, do you know what you want? are you living within your own mind and body enough to understand your own feelings, desires, and preferences beyond what other people might think of your choices? i guess i’ve gone straight to the knife to the gut, heart of the matter. but these are the core issues that need to be addressed before communication pattern can be taught.

i grew up with a family that tends toward ocd, rigid personal preferences, micro-management, and control issues. analyze that. now don’t get me wrong, they were fun, warm, loving women who definitely found the humor in these tendencies. but for me, growing up in this family, it was very confusing. i’m a people pleaser by nature (or was trained to be one, the jury is still out on that one). i was terrified of conflict, anger, being told i did something wrong. so i quickly learned to deal with this by predicting needs, learning the “right way” to do things, and keeping my own preferences on the back burner, only to be allowed out when i was alone and wouldn’t get caught doing the wrong thing. it’s not that i felt my preferences/needs were wrong, it’s just that i didn’t think anybody else had time for that. but when i was alone, i was free. analyze that, too.

i’m a strong believer that your personality is firmly in place by the time you’re 4 or 5, and at that age i was entrenched in the role of mommy’s little servant helper. i had been trained through consequences and rewards to support and maintain someone else’s perfect reality, or suffer the wrath (big, big bark). so for me, it has been a journey from public denial of what i want/need, into getting curious about my own preferences, accepting them and giving them value, talking to other people about them, and then asserting them confidently.

what i’m saying is that there are people for whom assertiveness is entirely contrary to the reality they have been living since childhood. to some people, that won’t make any sense. that’s fine. but i’m talking to you, negator of your own needs!

so take for example, the situation with said predator. if i was still living out of a space what i think/feel/want doesn’t matter, just uphold this dude’s dignity, i would have started blankly and politely at him, allowed him to invade my personal space while subtly trying to back up, leave the room and tattle on him to another group leader in the hopes that someone would swoop in and save me. “how rude of this guy not to notice my discomfort and run me over? he’s so gross. why don’t people understand how gross they are and leave me alone? i hate doing this group, this is so uncomfortable. maybe i’ll ask if someone else can do it so i don’t have to deal with that guy…” this comes from a passive to passive-aggressive place where i’m unwilling to state my own request, but feel angry and walked on because other people aren’t stepping up to take care of me the way i take care of them.

it begs the question, “why is it up to someone else to take care of me and my needs?” that is the quintessential question. it of course has to do with the fact that i’m pushing myself aside to subtly or not so subtly take care of the needs of others. why? most of the time, they haven’t even asked me to do that. it’s this pattern learned at 4 or 5 to take care of others first so there will be no conflict and i can stay safe. but then, why don’t i feel safe? because it doesn’t work anymore. and with a gentleness i didn’t receive as a kid, it’s time to teach myself to grow up and take care of my own needs first. it’s nobody’s job but mine. and as for taking care of other people before myself? as the song goes, take this job and shove it.

so it starts with, what am i feeling? uncomfortable, desrespected, powerless.

why? because you’re sitting too close to me and being disruptive of the group dynamic by talking quietly to me, your body language is turned entirely in on me, and you’ve repeatedly asked me for things that i keep telling you to go to your counselor about.

how do i want to feel? i want to feel safe, competent, in control of myself and my space, comfortable.

what do i need to ask for? i need you to back up about a foot, listen to what i’m requesting, and stop disrupting the group to get my attention.

and what if he doesn’t do what i ask? i will get up and move to another spot in the group, and if necessary ask him to leave, getting other group leaders involved if necessary.

this is just one example, hopefully clear if not overly simplified. the point is that i have to stop taking a position of powerlessness by staying stuck in the mindset of, why is the world like this? why do other people act like this/do these things to me? and instead opt for identifying what is going on inside of me, what specific things i am reacting to, and addressing the situation and asking for the changes that would help get my wants and needs met. that’s the first part. the second part is to examine how they respond. if my request is met, great! if it’s not, then it’s my responsibility to make some self-adjustments or remove myself from the situation. because i deserve to feel comfortable, safe, and in control of myself and what is happening to me. and that’s why the initial question is so important. so.

do you deserve what you want? do you deserve what you need?

looking forward: cautiously but with a smile

i was chatting with my mom tonight after work and as we were getting off the phone, she says, “oh i wanted to mention, kimmy wants to spend christmas eve with me.  i hope that’s ok.”  kim is her oldest friend, they’ve known each other since they were 4.  she and her kids came to our thanksgiving last week.  they have never been holiday friends, but it looks like we’ve got a new tradition.

i think i’m ok with this.  mom continued on, “kim is my sister now.  i’ve gotta have someone around who’s level headed, and you don’t always wanna listen to my bullshit.”  true.  and i liked kim and her family at thanksgiving.  surprisingly funny!

i talked about thanksgiving a lot in grief counseling this morning.  this was my second session with the new girl, my initial counselor from Barb’s hospice went on a leave of absense just before grama died.  i think it’s a good switch.  when i first met her i was a bit overwhelmed by the youth and the blond hair and the skinnyness and the fashionable clothes and the st thomas school affiliation.  but this weekend we connected a bit more.  i let my guard down and she offered some insight that i respected.  tit for tat.

in talking through thanksgiving and my caretaking of barb and grama, i realized that there’s a part of me that i don’t want to be anymore.  as barb was dying, there were a lot of family jokes about this control-freak, perfectionist, micro-managing streak that runs through our family.  i loathed my mom for it growing up, but taking care of barb opened my eyes to my mom not being an anomaly.  and they must have learned it from somewhere.  enter grama.  but the way i reacted to that strong personality was to learn to predict needs and excel, be a good girl and do everything right.  my grief counselor asked if i could see that as kind of a gift, that it made me into a good caretaker.

i explained that yes i can see that caretaking is a gift that i can give to others.  but it’s also a way for people to love me for what i do rather than who i am.  for instance, barb often told me i was her favorite caretaker of all in the end of her illness.  which feels good to an extent.  but it also felt shitty – you love me because i do what you say.  and over the course of my life, many have admired my obedience – quiet little good girl, so sweet, always doing such a good job.  but i secretly hate people who love me for that, people who are so focused on how good i make them feel that they’ve forgotten to discover ME.  but i loop around and blame myself for it.  if i had just been myself rather than wanting to please others, people would like me for me in the first place. 

my biggest complaint in this grieving process had been that i haven’t gotten the support i wanted from certain people who i thought should be looking out for me.  i’m glad to be talking about that in counseling, too, because it helps me see the selfishness in it, and the way i need to continue to work on asking for what i want.  today i realized that this is an example of me exhibiting my own control issues.  i retreated emotionally from the controlling women in my family, withdrawing to the safety of my solitude.  i connect, i have good friends, but at the end of the day i stay safe and alone so i can have life my way.  as mortality slammed into my life this year, i laid out my silent guidelines for how people should properly support me.  and when they don’t measure up i just as silently retreat back into myself, cursing names.

but when i take a step back, releasing control and practicing patience and acceptance of other people’s ways and time, i’m getting some lovely support and freshness.  that’s what thanksgiving showed me this year.  i went in thinking how inappropriate it was for my mom to invite all these new people, replacements.  but it was actually really fun!  and today my biggest fear around that issue was stated blatantly:  “kim is my sister now.”  my mom is definitely doing some replacing.  but is that such a bad thing?

maybe the question is not, can empty spaces be filled?  maybe it’s shouldn’t they?  perspective, man.

in the week after barb died, i got so totally broken down, broken open.  i felt a gratitude for divine timing.  there’s some spiritual books that talk about agreements made as spirits in heaven before they decend to earth to inhabit bodies.  partnerships, cooperation.  i don’t know whether i believe in that, but the sentiment is lovely.  the idea that there was an agreement on timing where barb had to die at the exact time i had to be broken open.  i almost forgot about that with the lowness i’ve felt over this past few weeks.

will there be other auntie figures in my life who will touch me as deeply as barb?  will i be allowed another grandmotherly figure to cherish and adore?  i don’t know.  but i know that i don’t want my silent rules of control, crossed with this militant loyalty, to block future opportunities.  can i let the obedient, caretaking, perfect daughter/neice/granddaughter go so that i can step further into authenticity?  simply live, connect, give AND receive, without expectation?

goodnight, good girl.