Why Assertiveness Matters

Being assertive can benefit your self-esteem, even if the other person doesn't listen or change.

In my counseling practice, I frequently include assertiveness training, where I work with my client to help themassertiveness become more assertive in their everyday lives. I find that many of the interpersonal difficulties we experience can be improved when we express our feelings in a kind, but clear manner.

First, let’s look at the distinction between assertive, non-assertive, and aggressive behaviors. Non-assertive behavior is when we honor the other person’s rights, but we don’t honor our own. We don’t speak up for ourselves when we should. We treat other people well, but don’t treat ourselves very well.

Many times, children are taught to be non-assertive. They may be punished when they try to express their needs, even when they do so respectfully. This can occur directly, where the parent chastises the child, or it can occur indirectly, where the parent has a harsh temper, and intimates the child. When that child grows up, she will often feel extreme anxiety at the thought of standing up for herself.

Aggressive behavior is the exact opposite of non-aggressive behavior. This occurs when the person stands up for his rights, but does so in a manner that infringes on the rights of the other person. This behavior makes the other person feel defensive, put down, or diminished. Aggression can be expressed by the words spoken, or by facial expressions, body language or tone of voice. Aggressive behavior can also be learned in childhood.

Assertive behavior is in the mid-point between non-assertive and aggressive behaviors. When you are assertive, you stand up for your rights, but do so in a manner that also honors the rights of the other person. You say how you feel, but express it in a way that respects the other person. You speak your truth in a kind, but serious manner.

It’s also important to remember that assertiveness is not a one-time conversation. You must be persistently assertive to make any impact on the relationship. This means that, to make any real difference, you speak up almost every time the other person infringes on your rights.

Sometimes my clients argue that any efforts to be assertive are useless because the other person won’t change. They say that the other person will just argue back, but that they will never listen. They explain their years of non-assertiveness by this feeling of hopelessness.

I then point out that there are two reasons to be assertive. The first, and most obvious, is to try to change the

 

situation or the relationship. Even if the other person is capable of change, they won’t if they don’t know how you feel. I have seen many relationships improved when one person learned to express her feelings in a respectful, but assertive manner. When the other person realized that they meant what they said, they made the eff

ort to change.

The second reason to be assertive has nothing to do with the other person at all. Even when the other party makes no changes, you benefit from being assertive. The change occurs within you. When you are appropriately assertive, you are taking care of yourself. You are saying to yourself, “I deserve to be protected and respected. I have as many rights as the other person.” You feel better about yourself.

Consider this example. A little boy is playing on the playground minding his own business. Another little boy comes up to him and pushes him down for no reason. The first little boy cries and walks away. That boy has experienced two injuries. The first is the physical pain of being pushed down. The second is the emotional pain of not standing up for himself. He feels diminished and inadequate. The emotional pain far outweighs the physical pain.

If the offended boy had stood up for himself in any way, he would have avoided the emotional pain of non-assertiveness. Whether he pushed back, verbally confronted the boy or told an adult, the emotional outcome would have been better. He would have experienced the physical pain of the push, but he would have felt better about himself.

If you are in a situation where you feel the need to be assertive, consider this. If someone you love were in the same situation, would you hope that they would be assertive? If so, then you should as well. Make sure that your assertive response respects the other person’s rights as well as your own. It may help to write down what you want to say to the other person. You can even state your feelings in a letter, if that is easier for you. Being appropriately assertive can provide a major step toward a more positive self-esteem.

Are You Really Experiencing Your Life?

We live most of our lives mindlessly. We may be doing one thing, but our minds tend to be on other things. We live in the present moment, but our minds are on the past or the future.

I first learned about the technique of “mindfulness” on a PBS television program, called “Healing and the Mind.” The host was the excellent reporter, Bill Moyers, and each episode featured a clinic, somewhere in the world, that specialized in mind/body medicine.

On this particular episode, he featured a clinic at Massachusetts Medical Center, a major teaching hospital where many Harvard medical students do their rotations and internships. People come there from all over the world for assessment and treatment of serious medical disorders.

In that hospital, is a clinic that was originally called “The Center for Catastrophic Illness,” and was founded by a psychologist, named Jon Kabit-Zinn. Patients are referred to this clinic who have any illness that has proven to be a catastrophe in their lives. The clinic has been enormously effective in helping these patients deal with their various illnesses.

The clinic teaches the technique of mindfulness. The technique has been practiced in Asia for about four thousand years, but has only been applied to healthcare in the US for about twenty years. While mindfulness practice cannot directly cure many physical illnesses, it can help patients deal with their difficulties with much less distress and discomfort. It has even been shown to cure some stress-related illnesses.

The technique involves three components, (a) noticing, (b) without judging, (c) in the present moment. To notice means to truly experience, to really be in the moment. Focus your attention on that event. Experience it with your five senses. If you are somewhere, really be there. Focus your mind on what you are doing, rather than something in the past or the future.

For example, if you are driving, notice the experience of driving. What do you see? What do you feel? Notice the unconscious movement of your hand on the steering wheel. Notice the subtle rumble of the road noise. Do the same with any experience. If you are interacting with a loved one, really focus your attention on that person and the interaction. If you are washing dishes, notice the various aspects of the experience, the feel of the water, the feel of the soap or the movements of your hands.

Now, try to recall some of the favorite moments of your life. I would bet that you experienced each of these favorite moments mindfully. You were focused on what you were doing at the time. If you experienced the moment mindlessly, you wouldn’t recall it as a favorite moment. I wonder how many other moments could have been favorites, if we had experienced them mindfully rather than mindlessly.

The second part of mindfulness is to notice “without judging.” This means to not analyze our experience in our minds, but to just experience it. We don’t focus on whether the experience is good or bad. It just is. For example, patients are actually taught to be mindful of their pain. This may seem strange, but we find that, when patients notice pain, without thinking of it as good or bad, the pain lessons, or at least becomes less distressful. We usually try to escape from our pain, and in doing so, make ourselves more tense. This tension actually worsens the discomfort.

The last part of mindfulness is “in the present moment.” This means to focus your attention on the present moment, rather than experiencing the present moment with your mind thinking about something in the past or something in the future.

Let’s think about time for a moment. All time can be divided into three parts; the past, the future, and the present. Everything prior to this moment in time is the past. Nothing in the past actually exists, except in our memories. Everything after this moment is the future, and nothing in the future actually exists except in our imaginations. The only thing that actually exists at any moment is that thin slice of time we call the present.

Yet, we live most of our present moments thinking about something in the past or something in the future. We don’t really experience the present moment, because we are analyzing, reminiscing or regretting past events or anticipating, dreading or worrying about future events. We thus miss the experience of the present moment.

Take a moment now to be mindful of the present moment. Notice what your five senses are experiencing. Notice your breathing. The act of noticing the breath can always bring you back to the present moment. Your breath is always with you. Let yourself simply be in the present moment now and experiencing this moment fully. If your mind wanders to the past or the future, it’s okay. Just gently bring your attention back to your breath and the present moment.

Practice this for a few moments at a time. If you can stay in the present moment for a few seconds, that’s good enough at first. After being mindful of the present moment experience for a little while, notice what you feel. Most people report that they feel a sense of calm or peace.

Practice mindfulness several times per day. You don’t have to take time out of your day at first. Just be mindful of whatever you’re doing. Then, if you like, take a few moments out of your day to get in a more extended time of present moment awareness. Give it a try!

Question: If you have tried present-moment mindfulness, what did you experience? Also, report any difficulties you experienced in trying the technique.

Holding On To Our Hurts

We worsen the pain and long-term damage when we hold on to our hurts.

What do you do when someone hurts you? Notice that the question is when, not if. Everyone gets hurt at times. It’s unavoidable. The important issue is how we respond to those hurts.holding on to our hurts

Some people strike back. Their hurt quickly turns into anger, frustration or irritation. The transition is usually so fast that they don’t even recognize the hurt. They only feel the anger. They may claim that they don’t feel hurt, just angry. I would argue, however, that underneath all anger is a sense of being hurt.

Some people hold their hurt in. They don’t say anything to the offending party. They just get quiet and withdraw. They protect themselves by distancing. It’s harder for them to hurt you if you distance from them. This distancing can be physical where you stay away from them altogether, or it could be emotional distancing where you just build a wall around your heart. Either way, you distance.

In many situations, the most effective response is an assertive one. An assertive response lets the other person know they their words or actions hurt you, but does so without being aggressive. Your tone and words are direct and serious, but not angry or attacking. An assertive response addresses the hurt without damaging the relationship.

But what about your long-term response to being hurt? Are you able to let the event go, or do you hold on to your hurt? Do you replay the event over-and-over in your mind? Do you continuously analyze what they meant, why they did it, or what you wish you had said to them? Do you find yourself thinking about it as you lie awake in bed?

Holding on to our hurts or anger creates several problems. Here are a few:

  1. Sustained anger or irritation creates harmful chemical changes in our bodies. When we experience resentment, irritation or anger, our bodies release cortisol. This chemical helps our bodies prepare to fight or flee when we are faced with physical danger. However, it is intended to be released as brief bursts, where we defend ourselves and then calm down. Holding on to negative emotions keeps the cortisol elevated, which damages the body over time. For example, research shows a clear connection between sustained anger and heart disease.
  2. Continued ruminating about a hurt can increase our general negativity. When we replay negative events in our minds, we are more likely to anticipate future negative events. We expect the worst. We tend to distrust others more. Our negative expectations of others can hurt other relationships.
  3. Repeatedly replaying hurtful events or analyzing them to death takes up valuable mental space. Our negative thoughts can ruin times we could have enjoyed. When we obsess today about a hurtful act that occurred last year, we give that hurtful person our afternoon. We don’t enjoy the afternoon because of our ruminations about the person who hurt us. And, by the way, that person is probably enjoying their afternoon without think about us at all.

So, the best immediate response to a hurtful act is usually an assertive one, but the best long-term response is always to let it go. It isn’t easy to let go of our hurts, but it’s always best for our well-being.

When a Loved One Hurts Us

We often respond to hurt with anger or withdrawal, but there is a better way.

It happens to everyone. We all get hurt by those we love. Hopefully, it doesn’t happen too often, but it does happen. couple_not_talkingOf course, we also hurt those we love, but we’ll save that for another article.

When we get hurt, we respond. We can’t help it. But, the nature of our response can make all the difference. Our response can influence the future course of the relationship, and our sense of well-being.

Our natural tendency is to become defensive or self-protective when we get hurt. We try to protect ourselves to avoid further pain. It makes sense. Unfortunately, a defensive response often worsens the situation.

We can divide our defensive responses into two categories; anger and withdrawal. For some, hurt is quickly, and subconsciously, turned into anger. They voice their complaint to the one who hurt them. Their words, tone of voice, facial expression, and posture convey that anger. They may even use the word “hurt” to express their feelings, but the non-verbal message is clear, “I’m angry.” The anger is often the only emotion the offending party hears.

Other people tend to respond to hurt with withdrawal. These people distance themselves. They may stop talking or physically leave. They distance themselves emotionally. They may avoid eye contact, busy themselves with some activity or focus their attention on others. They may harbor resentment for the hurt, but they don’t discuss it. With enough hurts, they may leave the relationship altogether.

So, what is a more effective response to hurt from a loved one? How can we respond to hurt in a manner that promotes healing and avoids further damage to the relationship? The answer is to simply and honestly, express the hurt. For this to be effective, our tone of voice, facial expression and body language must convey hurt, not anger. This is difficult, and we have to be conscious and deliberate about it. It is difficult because it makes us feel vulnerable. It takes a lot of courage to make yourself vulnerable to the person who has just hurt you.

Expressing hurt in a vulnerable manner can promote a more productive conversation, deeper understanding, and eventually, an improved relationship. Expressing hurt as anger or withdrawal usually creates conflict, distance, and a wounded relationship. There are exceptions, but this is usually true.

Now, please remember that we are talking about hurt from a loved one. We’re assuming that the other person is not emotionally dangerous and unstable, and is not intentionally trying to hurt you because they enjoy doing so. We can usually tell the difference.

So, next time you are hurt by a loved one, try to express that hurt only as hurt. Let them know that their words or behaviors hurt you, and do so without anger. Make yourself express the hurt, rather than withdrawal, detachment and silence. Try to express your feelings in a more vulnerable way. Chances are, you’ll begin a healthier conversation, and eventually, an improved relationship.

 

Comments: What do you think? Have you seen the benefits of expressing hurt rather than anger or withdrawal?

The Power of Relationship Assumptions

Could you be damaging your relationships by holding onto false assumptions?

This article is the second in my series on choosing our assumptions wisely. Last week we looked at the impact of our couple_talking_nicelyassumptions on our life choices. If we assume we can accomplish a goal, we will pursue it. If we assume that we don’t have the ability to be successful, we won’t attempt the goal, and thus, will stay where we are. We will give up on the dream.

Today, we’ll look at our assumptions regarding relationships. We all make relationship assumptions. We assume what another person is feeling or thinking. We assume how that person is going to respond to us. We create a story in our heads about how others see us, how they judge us or whether they like or care about us. We make these assumptions all the time, but we don’t realize that they are assumptions. We treat them as absolute truth. Be believe them without hesitation. We’re often wrong.

Many potentially enriching, supportive relationships have ended because one or both individuals made inaccurate assumptions about the other person and then acted on those assumptions. The assumptions created unnecessary conflicts or distance. The assumptions were false, but the resulting hurt was real.

Consider the following example. Jack and Susan have been married eleven years. In the beginning they were both very happy with the relationship. They loved the other and felt loved in return.

Through the years, they experienced the common stressors of life; financial strains, death of a parent, children with behavior problems. They became consumed with work and child rearing. They had little time for each other. The conflicts began.

Susan began to feel that Jack didn’t care about her. She noticed the hours he worked and his tendency to get lost in TV. Her hurt of rejection turned into anger. She voiced her complaints, trying to get him more involved, but it didn’t work. Jack just became more distant. He avoided talking to her. He shut down even more. Susan assumed that Jack had stopped loving her.

Jack began to feel that Susan blamed him for all their problems. He hated the arguments because each one left him feeling more defective, confused and inadequate. He assumed that Susan saw him as an inadequate husband and father.

The reality was that Susan didn’t see Jack as inadequate, she just missed him. She wanted him to love her and to want to spend time with her. Of course, Jack didn’t see this.

And Jack hadn’t fallen out of love with Susan. In fact, her opinion of him was very important to him. He wanted her to see him as a good man. He didn’t distance because he didn’t care. He distanced because he couldn’t handle the thought that his wife considered him a failure. Of course, Susan didn’t see this.

Before Jack and Susan could see the truth, they had to entertain the possibility that their assumptions about the other one were inaccurate. They had to consider the possibility that they were wrong. Once they did, they were able to talk more calmly. They actually asked the other one what they were feeling and they listened. Jack talked about his desire for Susan to see him as a good man. Susan expressed, in a non-accusing way, that she just wanted more of Jack because she loved him so much. They began the process of healing.

Consider your relationships. Ask yourself if you might be making assumptions about the other person that are false. What if you are? What if you are hurting a relationship because of an untrue assumption? Why don’t you calmly check it out? Ask them about the assumption and really listen to what they say. What do you have to lose?

The Connection Between Non-Assertiveness and Depression

Research has shown a relationship between non-assertiveness and depression. The studies indicated that people whocouple_talking_nicely are generally non-assertive are more likely to get depressed than others who are assertive. Assertiveness has been defined as behavior that enables people to act in their own best interests by expressing their thoughts and feelings directly and honestly.

Lets look at the definitions of non-assertiveness, assertiveness and aggressiveness. When we are non-assertive, we honor the other person’s rights, but don’t honor our own rights. When we’re aggressive, we honor our own rights, while trampling on the other person’s rights. When we’re assertive, we honor our own rights, while also honoring the other person’s rights.

In my counseling, I have seen many people who were experiencing depression that was either caused or worsened by an inability to be assertive. The client had allowed others to treat her badly, and was unable to stand up for herself. Over time, the pain and perceived helplessness of the situation led to clinical depression. Like the old idea of Chinese water torture, the drip, drip, drip of being mistreated, without self-defense took it toll.

There are many reasons that people have difficulty being assertive. We will look at several of them here.

1. There is a fear that the other person will get angry. In most cases, this isn’t a fear of physical violence, but rather, a fear of the anger itself. The non-assertive person may have experienced intense or inappropriate anger from a parental figure during childhood. The child associated danger with the anger. That association is maintained in the adult. Even though the victim will readily admit that they are not afraid of violence from the other person, they experience fear and anxiety, as if violence was a risk.

2. The non-assertive person fears disapproval from the other person. In this case, the focus is on the risk of disappointing the other person. No action is necessary. Just a disappointing look, or an anticipated loss of respect can keep the victim silent.

3. Sometimes the non-assertive person has a fear of “being mean.” This individual fears hurting the other person or inconveniencing them. These are the classic “people pleasers.” They work very hard to be nice, even if it means sacrificing their own needs.

4. The person’s self-esteem may be so low, that he feels he has no right to be assertive. He upholds others rights to defend their needs, but doesn’t feel he has the same rights.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of causes, and you may relate somewhat to them all. Changing from non-assertive behaviors to assertive behaviors can be difficult. It begins with small things. State your opinion in areas where you anticipate less resistance. At first, be assertive with people you feel will be more receptive. Practice the behavior.

You will be uncomfortable at first. You will feel anxiety and may be uncertain about whether you have the right to be assertive in a particular situation. Try this little mind experiment. Imagine a friend or loved one in the exact same situation as you are experiencing. Put them in your shoes. Would they have a right to be assertive if they were in this situation? Would you want them to stand up for themselves? If so, then you should be assertive as well. Practice the behavior you would want your friend to exhibit.

So, what if you are assertive and the other person resists, argues with or ignores your requests? You will have to be “persistently assertive,” meaning that you maintain you position, stating your disagreement calmly but confidently.

Also, don’t be surprised if the other person accuses you of being selfish or mean. When others are accustomed to you being non-assertive, going along, and never disagreeing, they will perceive you as mean or overly negative when you stand your ground. You may just have to push through this hurdle. Over time, they will get used to your assertive moments and actually see it as within your rights.

Learning to be assertive is a gradual process. You begin with the realization that you have the right to be assertive. Then you practice the behavior in less intimidating situations. Gradually, you state your mind in more difficult circumstances. Eventually, you will be able to be assertive without even realizing it.

 

Question: What other reasons come to mind for non-assertive behaviors? Share them here.

Your Do-It-Yourself Guide to Fighting Depression (Part 1)

Are you suffering from depression? Is someone you love suffering with depression? Suffering is the operable term here, because depression is trolltruly painful. People with both chronic physical pain and clinical depression have told me that they would rather have the physical pain than the depression. The pain of clinical depression is hard to describe, but you’ll know it if you get it.

The most effective treatment for depression is a combination of medication and cognitive psychotherapy, but sometimes those treatments are unavailable or may not be working well enough for you. Whether or not you are getting professional treatment, there are several do-it-yourself actions you can take to fight your depression.

Sometimes it helps to have a different way of perceiving depression. Think of your depression as a parasitic, mean, ugly troll that has gotten into your body and mind. This troll wants to grow, and it doesn’t care what it does to you. It is truly a parasite. The depression troll grows by making you do the very things that will feed it. It makes you yearn to do the things that make it grow and become stronger. By resisting these tendencies, you can weaken your depression and starve that mean, ugly, parasitic troll and make him go away.

There are four areas where the depression troll influences your behavior. To fight the depression and starve the troll, you have to do the opposite of what he makes you want to do. In order to give each area proper attention, we’re going to consider the four depression fighters in four consecutive blog posts. This is the depression fighter for today:

DEPRESSION FIGHTER NUMBER ONE:

INCREASE PHYSICAL ACTIVITY

Your depression troll makes you decrease your physical activity. You feel tired all the time. You don’t feel like doing anything. You don’t want to move. You feel heavy and drained of energy. The troll makes you feel this way because it feeds the depression, making it grow. The less you move, the more depressed you become. In contrast, the more you move, the less depressed you become.

Any activity or movement helps. Even getting up from the couch and walking around the house helps some. Any activity that makes your muscles move and speeds up your heart and breathing fights depression. Walking is a very effective depression fighter. A 20-30 minute walk every day would be great, but any amount helps. It seems to help the nervous system’s balance the neurotransmitters (the chemical foundation of depression).

I do realize that getting up off the couch or out of bed can feel like a monumental endeavor. It can feel totally impossible if your depression is severe. You may have to begin with very small increases in physical activity. Take a shower and get dressed. Walk from one room to the next. Step outside for a little while. Try to push yourself, but don’t chastise yourself if you can’t. Just try again later. Keep trying. Persistence is often the key to defeating depression.

You might also recruit a family member or friend to help you increase your physical activity. Tell them to push you, without fussing at you. This can be a fine line, so they will have to be careful, but the benefits of a supportive friend can be enormous.

Next week, we’ll look at the second step in your do-it-yourself guide to fighting depression, but for now try to increase your physical activity as much as you can each day.

Question: Share some actions that have helped you or a loved one fight depression.

What My Dog Taught Me About Marriage

In my outpatient practice, I often do marital therapy. Couples come in to work on improving, or perhaps saving their Poo_Dogrelationship. By the time they take this step, they have often experienced years of conflict or distance. Sometimes they are close to calling it quits and calling the divorce attorney.

My first task in marital therapy is an assessment of the situation. What are the issues? What are the patterns of communication? What are the trigger points of conflict? What are the personalities and motivations of each participant?

After this initial assessment, I will sometimes surprise the couple by telling them that they remind me a lot of my dog. This statement is met with some very strange looks, but at least I know that I have their attention. I go on to explain.

Several years ago, I was sitting on my front porch and my little white dog was playing in the yard. He never went into the road, but on this day he did. He ran into the road just as a car approached. The car hit him and ran over him. I watched helplessly as he rolled under the body of the car. The car drove on and my dog sat in the middle of the road, twisting and yelping.

I jumped off the porch and ran out to the road, while calling to my wife to get the car so we could take him to the vet. I reached down to pick up my dog to put him into the car, and he bit me on the hand.

It never entered my mind to be angry at my dog. I knew why my dog bit me. He bit me because he was in pain. I doubt that he even knew that he was biting me. He was just snapping at anything close because of his intense pain. His response was a reflex.

Most couples experiencing marital problems have been biting each other for some time. They didn’t bite because they were mean or because they didn’t love. They bit each other because they were in pain. They had been hurt by the other one and responded by biting back.

Unfortunately, each individual was aware of their own pain and their feeling that they had been bitten, but not aware that their responses had inadvertently bitten their partner. Not realizing that they had also bitten, they concluded that the partner bit because she was mean and critical or because he didn’t care.

My first task in doing marital therapy is getting each member of the couple to focus more of their attention on what they have done to hurt the relationship, rather than focusing on what the other partner has done. By realizing that they have also contributed to the problem, they can begin healing.

By the way, my dog recovered completely, and lived many years after the accident. By learning from my dog, many couples have recovered as well!

Question: Please share any experiences where you have recognized that you were not the only one being hurt in a relationship difficulty, and what you did about it.

The single biggest problem in communication…

I couldn’t agree more with this post by Otrazhenie. We assume we know that the other person is thinking or their intentions or their feelings. So often we are completely wrong, but don’t believe we are wrong. We then act on our mistaken assumptions, hurting the relationship and the other person. Don’t assume. Don’t do mind reading. Ask for clarification. Tell them your assumption and ask them if it’s correct. Notice how many times you are wrong. Your relationships will be better for the effort!    Terry Ledford, Ph.D.

Story!

You may be surrounded by wonderful, well-meaning people, but only you can know your needs, feelings and purpose. You can listen and learn from others, but you can’t allow them to direct your life. Live your life deliberately!