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?

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a predator’s dream

in one of the groups i lead, there’s this guy, real hard, has spent most of his life in prison, sees himself as some kind of ladies man. he has asked to come talk to me informally several times and i keep referring him back to get a therapy referral from his counselor. he sits by me everyday in group, and his body language is very directly trying to get my attention. i find him laughable and mildly repulsive.

i had a chance to talk to his counselor yesterday, who offered me the following feedback: “your face and your manner is very calm, serene, open. you’re like a predator’s dream.” i laughed really hard at that! it’s true. and that’s what used to terrify me about certain men. when i was doing a therapy project with a friend in grad school, i told her i was “easily monopolized.” it goes back to a family trait. for some reason, in my family we all attract weirdos. and i think it’s because it’s passed down (unspoken family rules) to be highly tolerant, patient, and not make other people feel bad or weird. i’ve had a habit of listening too long, listening with a straight face, withholding judgment.

don’t get me wrong, this can be a very positive quality. people feel very comfortable around me in general. but it left me open to being easily monopolized. the flipside of this coin is poor boundaries.

i feel like i’ve learned a lot from my work as a therapist. what brought me into the field was partly that i wanted to used my great listening skills, fueled by this high tolerance. however, i don’t want to be ran over either. i used to solve this problem in my personal life by sneaking away, running away, or remaining closed off and aloof. in my work, i’ve learned that it doesn’t always serve clients to be a soft, kind, passive and supportive listener. some people need a more bold and directive approach. i need to model assertiveness, for them and for me. and some people really need me to state my boundaries. like this predator.

all this is to say that when my co-worker gave me feedback and made me laugh about being a predator’s dream, i laughed in a wonderful way! because i know how hard this situation would have been for me if i had not learned to set clear boundaries and assert myself. i have grown. this interaction made me realize that i have learned how to keep my general calm, serene, and open manner, while being confident that i can let people know the edges of my boundaries. i have moved from passive and passive-aggressive into being comfortable with being assertive. i’ve learned that i can trust myself to take care of myself. because of my work, but of huge benefit in my personal life. it feels good!