Stand Up For Your Self
Learning how to be assertive helps one protect one’s boundaries, communicate effectively, build self-esteem, and save time for meaningful pursuits, says
Sharmila Maluste Bhosale
Imagine the following scenario:
You are standing in a line, say at a bank counter or a coffee shop, waiting for your turn to be served. Suddenly, someone cuts through and stands ahead, looking as if they have every right to be there, without so much as giving a glance backwards. No one seems to have noticed, or even if they have, no one is saying anything.
What do you do?
Do you seethe inside, unable to voice the words that seem stuck in your throat, your fists clenched in a tight fist, your nails digging into your palm?
Or do you inwardly sigh, tell yourself that this is life, and this is how things are, and sigh some more, and resign yourself to a little more wait time?
Or do you holler from your place, and all those in line, till now engrossed in their phones, are startled enough to look up? You tell the person to move away and go and stand at the back of the line. Don’t they notice the line? You go on about the quality of their eyesight, their manners, their intelligence levels. You succeed in agitating yourself, and this heightened, hyperstimulation of your brain and heart takes a while to settle, perhaps taking a good part of your day.
Or do you draw the attention of the person who has broken the queue to the fact that there is a line of which they were, perhaps, unaware and suggest that they should take their place in it, as you and all the others have been waiting their turn?
“Assertiveness can be seen as the midpoint between passive and aggressive ways of being,” says Srilatha Srikant, psychotherapist and REBT (Rational emotive behaviour therapy) practitioner. “Being passive is a response to feeling that you must be ‘nice’ to others. You fear being judged or rejected by others and may get overly compliant. Being aggressive is a response to feeling powerless. It may take the form of threats, bullying, sarcasm, and fighting.”
Learning to be assertive covers the entire gamut of:
• How to stand up for yourself and not allow people to walk over you.
• How to state your position or point of view firmly yet non-aggressively.
• How to say ‘no.’
• How to set boundaries and safeguard them.
On any given day, we face several situations where we need to assert ourselves. From someone cutting in front of you at Coffee Café Day, to your boss reprimanding you for being late (when you weren’t), to a co-worker stealing your idea in a meeting, to your husband blaming you for something that wasn’t your fault, to your child making you responsible for doing something for him….the list is really endless. And yet, how often do you stick up for yourself or assert yourself clearly and firmly, without resorting to aggression or meekly giving way?
Earlier, out of politeness, or inability, or sheer unawareness, I would be unable to voice my feelings at that moment, and in hindsight, a flood of retorts and comebacks would form in my mind. I would replay a particular scene over and over again, reliving and imagining a different outcome had I said what needed to be at that moment to assert myself. I would suffocate in frustration and anger, and fumble in uncertainty.
When we are not assertive in a situation and are unable to muster up a suitable and healthy response, we regurgitate the situation in our heads, coming up with several comebacks, but they all feel hollow as they have been delivered in retrospect. This diminishes us, further giving rise to an endless cycle of repression, fuelling an outburst at the wrong time. Any slight incident can set it off, and sometimes, we are shocked at the kind of overreaction we give to an interaction that didn’t warrant it at all. If you have blown up over something, out of proportion to the response it merited, you know how it feels.
It sometimes takes a crisis to precipitate angst or a realisation that our old methods don’t seem to work anymore. We feel constantly drained, emotionally and physically, often overwhelmed and unable to cope with others as well as ourselves. We flare up at the slightest irritation, our nerves on edge, as we struggle with all that we have bottled up. We need to dig deep, discover from where this turmoil stems, and change some patterns of our reactions to effect new paradigms of behaviour and habits. We recognise that we need to stand up for our self, assert our self—the self that is the core of who we are.
Easier said than done, for though we may have role models we admire for the way they uphold themselves, not allowing anyone to walk over them, we lack the techniques and processes that entrench such behaviour in us.
How to assert yourself
What does it mean to be an easy walk-over? Why do other people find it easy to walk over you, and not, say, your friend who always seems so sorted?
If you stay quiet for fear of not being liked, loved, wanted, appreciated, or validated, or do something out of your way, at the cost of your time, effort, and willingness because you do not want to be considered selfish or unkind, and fear being rejected, ignored, or overlooked by loved ones, then this thinking will make you the perfect candidate for being walked over.
The first step is to be aware of your intentions and your reasons for not asserting yourself.
“I used to be a people-pleaser. I tended to agree with whatever someone said, for fear that they would not like me if I disagreed. I wanted to belong. After marriage, I wanted to fit in with my new family, wanted them to like me, and I would go out of my way to help, even if I was tired. I realised, after a decade, that this is how they saw me: accommodating, passive, always to be counted upon,” says Nidhi Tanwar (name changed on request), 45, a cost accountant. “After a while, I realised, I was burnt out and stuck in a pattern of interaction that I just couldn’t get out of. I told myself that the next time, I will put my foot down, but I kept getting sucked into my self-made role.”
Says Sunita Surana, a Lifestyle Empowerment coach, “As an Indian brought up in a traditional family, I was brought up to do everything except think of myself. All my life was about being available and helpful to others, and if I put myself first, I felt selfish.”
“It is not selfish to love yourself, take care of yourself, and to make your happiness a priority, says Mandy Hale author of The Single Woman: Life, Love, and a Dash of Sass.
Find some me time
Carve some non-negotiable time for yourself every day to do the things you want to do—things that you enjoy—so that you feel worthy of yourself. Anything that makes you feel more of yourself, takes you closer to who you are. Over time, this enables you to understand yourself better; you feel rooted, and standing up for yourself becomes a natural process slowly, yet surely. Like everything else, being assertive is a practice, and the more you practise, the better you get at it.
Building self-love is the most potent way to remain assertive in all the areas of your life. Love yourself to the point where you are able to reject anything or anyone unworthy of your time, energy, and attention. Start in small ways. For instance, be aware of your body language.
Your posture, very often, conveys whether you are a walk-over or can take a stand, and many of us are not cued in to how our body looks to others.
You can practise this every day in order to ingrain it into your body: Stand up straight, breathe deeply, make eye contact with people you are speaking to, get centred over your feet, rest your hands at your sides, or gesture to make a point: in other words, let your body communicate your confidence in who you are and what you have to say.
How to say ‘no’
One of the hardest parts of being assertive is learning the art of saying ‘no.’
‘No’ for an extra helping of food on your plate at a dinner party if you don’t want it. ‘No’ for doing extra hours at the office when you’d rather not. Turning down projects or nights out with friends might not seem likeable, but occasionally saying ‘no’ allows you to say ‘yes’ to events and tasks that allow you to flourish. For the most part, you have the right to use your time as you see fit. Assertiveness means not giving in to situations that are not in your best interests.
“Being nice is really overrated,” says Leena Jacob, PLR, Inner Child Healing, and Meditation practitioner and counsellor. “We keep postponing our stand till the other person starts taking liberties with us. It is always better to assert yourself at the start of an interaction. In the first instance that someone crosses your boundaries or tries to make you do something that goes against what you want, you need to state in clear terms that it is not acceptable to you. Later, after you have allowed someone to take you for granted or override your wishes, it becomes difficult to assert yourself.”
Saying ‘no’ might be difficult at first, but, with practice, you will see that exercising this right helps you get ahead. Saying ‘no’ comes with a caveat, though. It should come out sounding firm, yet polite. Also, it should be said without sounding apologetic or making excuses and without sounding aggressive.
To consistently say ‘no’ with grace and clarity, we need a variety of responses. To some people, this comes naturally. Others, however, offer noncommittal answers like “I’ll try to fit that in,” or “I might be able to” when they know full well that they can’t.
It’s far better, however, to offer a clear ‘no’ than string someone along or give them a wishy-washy ‘no.’ Own your choice to say ‘no,’ and it will come out naturally and effectively.
How to set boundaries
A critical part of being assertive is to set boundaries. Boundaries determine what you will and will not tolerate from another person. It defines the point where you begin and the other person ends. It’s a non-negotiable zone and you need to set it and value it and imprint it into every word and action.
“Healthy boundaries give you a sense of self. If you have weak boundaries, you may be easily suggestible. You may not be able to separate your emotions from that of others and may feel guilty for someone else’s negative feelings or problems or accept blame easily. Clear internal boundaries help you know where your responsibilities end and those of others begin. You may tend to take on other people’s feelings, thoughts, or beliefs as your own and lose your sense of individuality. This is called ‘enmeshment.’ Enmeshment can be very draining and emotionally exhausting,” says Srilatha Srikant.
“Setting boundaries was not something I understood till very late in my life when I started getting ill and feeling exhausted,” says Sunita Surana. “I learnt how to set boundaries very gradually. I learnt not to fix other people’s problems, not to be available, and never to help unless asked or if I genuinely wanted to. I say I am busy if I don’t want to see someone. The most important part is I don’t feel guilty anymore. Most people want to offload, want a willing ear. I do listen, but when I start feeling drained, I make an excuse and come out of the situation.”
Difference between setting boundaries and being aggressive
There is a marked line between setting a healthy boundary and coming on strong. “A healthy boundary is not a reaction. It is having a civil conversation. It is agreeing to disagree and not walking away in a huff. It is choosing your battles wisely and not setting off on a warpath at every instance. It is being expressive, not explosive,” clarifies Leena Jacob.
We can set boundaries by conveying what is acceptable to us. “You cannot talk to me like that” being an example. “It is crucial that there should be consequences if the other person continues to behave in a manner that is not fine with us, and these consequences should be followed through,” says Jacob.
Boundaries are easier to set when we are self-aware and take time to introspect and observe ourselves. “We need to be brutally honest with ourselves first, not necessarily with others,” she says.
“Healthy boundaries help set the tone for how you want to be treated in a relationship. They help you stay on in relationships that foster and enhance personal growth, make decisions that lead to growth and self-development, and thus enhance your sense of health and well-being,” explains Srilatha Srikant. “Healthy boundaries help you feel empowered and in control of your life. They help you balance self-interest and attainment of your goals, with that of helping others achieve their goals and interests. In fact, if you are aware but can be flexible about your psychological boundaries, and can also protect them when they are under attack, you are most likely to be psychologically healthy.”
“When we tell a child to keep quiet or not cry, we are not allowing them to acknowledge their feelings. We are shutting their emotions out without listening to them or giving them space to simply feel their feelings. We divert their minds, distract their attention, and this, in turn, becomes a habit, ingrained into their system as they grow up,” explains Leena. “As adults, this starts an unhealthy pattern of distracting our mind with things like shopping, TV, food, and alcohol, when we start experiencing strong feelings.” A child who is not able to process his feelings will not be able to stand up for himself as he is not aware of what is going on within him. This child will grow into an adult who cannot tune into his feelings—constantly pushing himself to achieve and often trampling on other people in order to do so—or who is unable to say ‘no’ and takes on more than he is capable of.
How to communicate firmly but unaggressively
Asserting yourself should not come at the cost of another’s respect. When you really assert yourself, it is done with the intention of conveying your needs and not with the covert aim of putting down someone else or getting back at them. Nor is it about breaching another’s space but being at ease with your own and communicating that. When you are truly assertive, you respect yourself as well as another. You take care to state your point in a calm, centred, and non-combative manner. “Assertive people recommunicate appropriately in a direct, open, and honest way, are respectful of personal boundaries, both theirs and other people’s, say ‘yes’ when they want to and ‘no’ when they mean ‘no.’ They are able to give and receive positive and negative feedback and are able to handle conflicts and disagreements effectively,” says Srilatha Srikant.
“It’s important to tone the emotion down. Say what you need to with thought, not impulse. And take responsibility for what you say; do not blame others for your words or actions. You have to voice yourself with love, with compassion, and try and arrive at a middle ground to negotiate when you have disagreements,” says Leena Jacobs. Even if the other person is reacting, we have the choice—and it’s imperative to remember that we always have the choice— of keeping our cool and holding the space for ourselves to respond with clarity, awareness, and responsibility. “When things get heated up, I exit the situation after excusing myself, promising to continue the discussion after the other person has cooled down, so that we can converse without getting our emotions in the way,” says Nidhi, having learnt this process after months of trial and error. “I am now happy with the way I deal with conflict and dissent. Earlier, I would fly off the handle, storm out, burst into tears, or keep things simmering on the back burner of my mind for days on end.” This keeps a potentially volatile situation from spiralling out of context and control, and we leave the situation with respect and focus. Most importantly, we feel empowered.
A few times, I have walked off during a heated argument, feeling in my bones that this was the right thing to do. As the day wore on and the victorious mindset began to ebb away, a weary feeling would slowly descend on me, and as I started thinking about the interaction, a grey, cloudy area of confusion and blur would form in my mind. Was I right in doing what I did? Why do I feel anxious about the next time I have to interact with this person? Will my work get done? Why do I feel hollow and shallow after being elated after my exit? To ward off my unease, I justified my action in various ways, even sounding it off to a close friend or two, expecting them to take my side, and feeling more miserable when they didn’t. Some reading, discussion, introspection, and staying with my feelings till a clear answer emerged helped me to navigate this territory with more awareness and a certain detachment. Also, observing a dear friend, whom I admire for her ability to stand her ground with quiet strength and compassion, made me understand that when you assert yourself, it is a healthy action, which leaves no residue in the mind. It does not violate the other person or insult another being, even if they are wrong. You don’t feel victorious after the interaction, only balanced and at ease. You do not feel vindicated, only understood. You do not attack or undermine the other person, only accord yourself the respect you deserve while preserving the dignity of the interaction. On the flip side, if you haven’t asserted yourself but either behaved passively or acted out of aggression or self-entitlement, you will be left with a feeling of vague unease, indignation, unrest, and guilt. You will stew in this cauldron of emotions, bubbling and boiling over time and spilling into the next interaction, either with the same or different person.
Being mindful during an interaction helps us choose our responses in a rational way, keeping our own interests at heart, while at the same time acknowledging that the other person, too, has feelings which are real. “What helps me assert myself is being kind to myself when I slip up. I forgive myself and tell myself to start all over again. I believe that I am a work in progress. Even if the next time I can stop myself from reacting and simply observe the interaction, paying attention to my breath, my body and my feelings, I find that I have managed to maintain my equilibrium and equanimity. There are hits and misses. On some days I still do go back to my old habits, but I catch myself and say with a laugh, ‘aha, there you go again’ and chalk it down to experience. There’s always a next time,” says Nidhi.
Diligently taking up any spiritual practice helps one observe the situation calmly rather than get emotionally involved in an unpleasant situation. Saadhana helps one detach oneself from one’s emotions while feeling them at the same time. Seeing the larger picture enables one to say or do the right thing without upsetting oneself or the other.
When we respond out of choice, confidence, awareness, onus, and respect, which all arise out of knowing, listening, and working on our self at a deeper level, and consistent practice, we truly assert our self.
As Lao Tzu puts it so beautifully, “Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others’ approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.”
Asserting yourself is owning your space in this world with quiet grace, steady resolve, and innate strength. Who wouldn’t want to be in such a space?
Where do you stand on the assertive scale?
Assertive versus unassertive and aggressive behaviour
Passive Behaviour: Is afraid to speak up
Aggressive Behaviour: Interrupts and ‘talks over’ others
Assertive Behaviour: Speaks openly
Passive Behaviour: Speaks softly
Aggressive Behaviour: Speaks loudly
Assertive Behaviour: Uses a conversational tone
Passive Behaviour: Avoids looking at people
Aggressive Behaviour: Glares and stares at others
Assertive Behaviour: Makes good eye contact
Passive Behaviour: Shows little or no expression
Aggressive Behaviour: Intimidates others with expressions
Assertive Behaviour: Shows expressions that match the message
Passive Behaviour: Slouches and withdraws
Aggressive Behaviour: Stands rigidly, crosses arms, invades others’ personal space
Assertive Behaviour: Relaxes and adopts an open posture/expressions
Passive Behaviour: Isolates self from groups
Aggressive Behaviour: Controls groups
Assertive Behaviour: Participates in groups
Passive Behaviour: Agrees with others, despite feelings
Aggressive Behaviour: Only considers own feelings, and/or demands of others
Assertive Behaviour: Speaks to the point
Passive Behaviour: Values self, less than others
Aggressive Behaviour: Values self, more than others
Assertive Behaviour: Values self, equal to others
Passive Behaviour: Hurts self to avoid hurting others
Aggressive Behaviour: Hurts others to avoid being hurt
Assertive Behaviour: Tries to hurt no one (including self)
Passive Behaviour: Does not reach goals and may not know goals
Aggressive Behaviour: Reaches goals but hurts others in the process
Assertive Behaviour: Usually reaches goals without alienating others
Passive Behaviour: You’re okay, I’m not
Aggressive Behaviour: I’m okay, you’re not
Assertive Behaviour: I’m okay, you’re okay
Reasons people are not assertive
Low self-esteem and self-confidence
Feelings of low self-esteem or self-worth often lead to individuals dealing with other people in a passive way.
Certain roles are associated with non-assertive behaviour, for example, low-status work roles or the traditional role of women. Stereotypically, women are seen as passive, while men are expected to be more aggressive.
Many people learn to respond in a non-assertive way through experience or through modelling their behaviour on that of their parents or other role models. Learnt behaviour can be difficult to unlearn, and the help of a counsellor may be needed.
When people are stressed, they often feel like they have little or no control over the events of their lives.
Some people believe they are either passive or aggressive by nature, that they were born with certain traits and that there is little they can do to change their mode of response.
This is very nearly, always an incorrect assumption since everybody can learn to be more assertive, even if their natural tendencies are passive or aggressive.
Tips and tools to develop your assertive muscle
• Use ‘I’
If you want to show assertive behaviour, avoid using ‘you,’ because this stops you from allowing control of the listener. When you use ‘me,’ you communicate your feelings and avoid the defensive attitude of your partner.
• Watch your body language
The way you project your body communicates if you can stand up for yourself or are submissive. Keep your back upright and your shoulders pushed back naturally. You should not be tense but should be mindful of your posture.
• Be aware of your voice
The tone should be firm and even. Not too soft nor too loud.
• Maintain eye contact
Looking steadily into the other person’s eyes when speaking will convey that you are not intimidated or going to be manipulated.
• Avoid ambiguity
Be clear when communicating—stick to your point and be precise.
• Do not use rude language.
• Do not swear or talk rudely. Using obscenities does not show assertiveness. Instead, it shows crude behaviour and immaturity of understanding. It demonstrates you cannot be taken seriously.
• Don’t make personal references such as ‘I don’t like her,’ and do not get personal by name-calling or shaming.
• Take a stand
• Take responsibility for the point you want to make or the action you want to take.
• Don’t apologise if you don’t need to.
• Back up your points with facts.
• Grow with experience
• Test yourself. Don’t stick to your comfort zone; face people or situations where you don’t feel the most comfortable. It will help you develop.
• Observe others and learn!
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