Assertiveness requires courage for it to be the preferred style of communication. More than likely, there are situations or specific relationships in which assertiveness comes naturally.
But are there people who are able to repeatedly push your buttons? Do you find yourself shutting down in certain situations? What happens if you come across someone who unexpectedly triggers your anxiety, shame, or feelings of helplessness?
In spite of much healing of past trauma, some people or situations maintain the power to push the buttons of residual issues.For instance, I find it difficult to be around particular people as long as I am expected to be someone I am not. I am not someone who fills every waking hour with activities or visitations. I like my down time. I need a certain amount of alone time to take care of myself.
Much energy is required to communicate boundaries to someone who does not respect “no” as an acceptable response. My desire is to passively avoid the situation all together. Unfortunately, ignoring repeated requests leaves the other person feeling unimportant and/or angry and reinforces my insecurities.
Taking the time to directly communicate my boundaries allows the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings, while simultaneously building mutual respect and trust.
Possible Negative Consequences
Of course, there are consequences for communicating openly and directly.
People may be offended, hurt or angered. Some may pull out the guilt card, while others like to use tears; both passive-aggressive methods are intended to manipulate the desired outcome. Occasionally, someone will choose to no longer associate with you.
You, however, are not responsible for their emotions or their responses. You are only responsible for how you respond.
Let’s look at an example a client (we’ll call him Bob) recently described.
Bob shared that he had been visiting a female friend in jail. The friend apparently took his attention to mean that there was a romantic interest on Bob’s part and asked him if they were going to marry in the future. Bob does not like confrontations and has a pattern of taking care of everyone before himself. However, he had just accepted the challenge to exercise “no” more often, especially when he did not want to do something. So Bob was honest and explained that this was not his interest, nor was it possible.
He reported she responded with anger. And now, he was questioning why he had risked being honest.
So I asked him, “What would have happened if you had said yes?” After contemplating the question for a bit, he responded that he would have to deal with this situation when she got out of jail. Furthermore, she would have been angrier to learn that they were not going to move in together and marry.
With this came the “aha” moment… the situation was not going to go away on its own and it was only going to get more intense if he were dishonest in the present. Dealing with the situation now allowed him to focus on his priorities.
Had my client been passive and said what his friend wanted to hear, he would have been on the hook to deal with a potentially uglier situation in the future. Instead, he practiced honoring his own needs and feelings, which in turn increased his confidence. He experienced saying “no” without being rude or inconsiderate. He simply and directly shared the facts.
While most of us anticipate the negative consequences, we are often surprised by the positive consequences that can come from being direct and honest.
Some benefits include the following:
- Greater self-respect
- Greater respect from others
- Increased confidence
- More joy and happiness
- Improved ability to determine priorities
- Better ability to negotiate desirable outcomes
- Improved relationships
- Discovering your real friends – people who do not want relationships of equality (shared give and take) tend to leave
- Better able to recognize and take advantage of opportunities.
Accepting the Challenges
It took me years to find the courage to be assertive and set my boundaries, and even longer to do this without feeling guilty. I was brought up to be a pleaser who took care of everyone else, often ignoring my needs. Moreover, as a child I benefited from anticipating the needs of others in an attempt to prevent or minimize their anger outbursts.
Still, there are situations that take me by surprise and touch on residual issues. I feel this immediate and deep reaction in my gut. Thoughts start flying. “How could you let this happen? You knew better than to trust this person. You are supposed to be smarter than that. Oh crap, did you miss some really important information that is now putting you at the mercy of this person/situation/organization? See, people really are just stupid and out to use you. I don’t know how to handle this situation and I hate to appear incompetent. Etc., etc., etc.”
You know the thoughts that attack and reinforce that deep gut wrenching feeling to either flee the scene or come out fighting with all your might.
But, by taking a deep breath and reminding ourselves “these are just the old fears surfacing,” we are able to seek the facts. Clarification often follows.
What is the best way to get at the facts? Start by asking direct, non-judging questions. Questions motivated by curiosity communicate an openness to hear what the other has to say.
Questions such as the following can open doors to unforeseen opportunities:
- How do you mean that?
- What gives you that impression?
- Can you tell me more?
- Hmmm, I’m not sure I am following you. Can you go into more detail?
By first communicating a willingness to understand, better relationships can follow. Healthy relationships are characterized by balanced power.
What situations in your life require more assertiveness? What change does your situation require to enforce your next breakthrough?