All of us should insist on being treated fairly; we have to stand up for our rights without violating the rights of others. This means tactfully, justly, and effectively expressing our preferences, needs, opinions and feelings. Psychologist call that being "assertive," as distinguished from being unassertive (weak, passive, compliant, self-sacrificing) or aggressive (self-centered, inconsiderate, hostile, arrogantly demanding). As mentioned in chapter 8, the Women's Movement since the 1960's has been a powerful influence on millions of women: women have gotten better career opportunities, more rights to control their bodies, more help from husbands with child care and housework, and so on. These changes happened because women assertively stood up for their rights.
Because some people want to be "nice" and "not cause trouble," they "suffer in silence," "turn the other cheek," and assume nothing can be done to change their situation or "it is our cross to bear." The rest of us appreciate pleasant, accommodating people but whenever a "nice" person permits a greedy, dominant person to take advantage of him/her, the passive person is not only cheating him/herself but also reinforcing unfair, self-centered behavior in the aggressive person. That's how chauvinists are created.
Assertiveness is an antidote to fear, shyness, passivity, and even anger, so there is an astonishingly wide range of situations in which this training is appropriate. Factor analysis of several assertiveness scales (Schimmel, 1976) has suggested several kinds of behavior are involved.
- To speak up, make requests, ask for favors and generally insist that your rights be respected as a significant, equal human being. To overcome the fears and self-depreciation that keep you from doing these things.
- To express negative emotions (complaints, resentment, criticism, disagreement, intimidation, the desire to be left alone) and to refuse requests. See "I" statements in method #4.
- To show positive emotions (joy, pride, liking someone, attraction) and to give compliments. Accept compliments with "Thank you."
- To ask why and question authority or tradition, not to rebel but to assume responsibility for asserting your share of control of the situation--and to make things better. You are no one's slave.
- To initiate, carry on, change and terminate conversations comfortably. Share your feelings, opinions and experiences with others. See method #8.
- To deal with minor irritations before your anger builds into intense resentment and explosive aggression. See method #5.
STEP ONE: Realize where changes are needed and believe in your rights.
Many people recognize they are being taken advantage of and/or have difficulty saying "no." Others do not see themselves as unassertive but do feel depressed or unfulfilled, have lots of physical ailments, have complaints about work but assume the boss or teacher has the right to demand whatever he/she wants, etc. Nothing will change until the victim recognizes his/her rights are being denied and he/she decides to correct the situation. Keeping a diary may help you assess how intimidated, compliant, passive or timid you are or how demanding, whiny, bitchy or aggressive others are.
Almost everyone can cite instances or circumstances in which he/she has been outspoken or aggressive. These instances may be used to deny we are unassertive in any way. However, many of us are weak in some ways--we can't say "no" to a friend asking a favor, we can't give or take a compliment, we let a spouse or children control our lives, we won't speak up in class or disagree with others in a public meeting, we are ashamed to ask for help, we are afraid of offending others, and so on. Ask yourself if you want to continue being weak.
One may need to deal with the anxiety associated with changing, to reconcile the conflicts within your value system, to assess the repercussions of being assertive, and to prepare others for the changes they will see in your behavior or attitude. Talk to others about the appropriateness of being assertive in a specific situation that concerns you. If you are still scared even though it is appropriate, use desensitization or role-playing to reduce the anxiety.
Consider where your values--your "shoulds"--come from. Children are bombarded with rules: Don't be selfish, don't make mistakes, don't be emotional, don't tell people if you don't like them, don't be so unreasonable, don't question people, don't interrupt, don't trouble others with your problems, don't complain, don't upset others, don't brag, don't be anti-social, do what people ask you to do, help people who need help, and on and on. Do any of these instructions sound familiar? They help produce submissive children--and adults. There are probably good reasons for many of these rules-for-kids but as adults we need not blindly follow rules. Indeed, every one of these injunctions should be broken under certain conditions: You have a right to be first (sometimes), to make mistakes, to be emotional, to express your feelings, to have your own reasons, to stop others and ask questions, to ask for help, to ask for reasonable changes, to have your work acknowledged, to be alone, to say "no" or "I don't have time," and so on. The old feelings deep inside of us may still have powerful control over us (see chapter 8). We can change, however.
Besides recognizing we have outgrown our unthinking submissiveness, we can further reduce our ambivalence about being assertive by recognizing the harm done by unassertiveness: (1) you cheat yourself and lose self-respect because you are dominated and can't change things, (2) you are forced to be dishonest, concealing your true feelings, (3) inequality and submissiveness threatens, if not destroys, love and respect, (4) a relationship based on your being a doormat, a slave, a "yes-person," a cute show piece or a source of income is oppressive and immoral, (5) since you must hide your true feeling, you may resort to subtle manipulation to get what you want and this creates resentment, and (6) your compliance rewards your oppressor. On the positive side, assertiveness leads to more self-respect and happiness. Build up your courage by reviewing all the reasons for changing.
Finally, there are obviously situations in which demanding immediate justice may not be wise, e.g. if you can get fired, if it would cause an unwanted divorce, if you might be assaulted, etc. Even in these more extreme cases, perhaps well planned or very gradual changes would be tolerated. Under any circumstances, discuss the reasons for becoming assertive with the other people involved so they will understand and approve (if possible) or at least respect you for being considerate of them, others, and yourself.
STEP TWO: Figure out appropriate ways of asserting yourself in each specific situation that concerns you.
There are many ways to devise effective, tactful, fair assertive responses. Watch a good model. Discuss the problem situation with a friend, a parent, a supervisor, a counselor or other person. Carefully note how others respond to situations similar to yours and consider if they are being unassertive, assertive or aggressive. Read some of the books listed at the end of this method. Most assertiveness trainers recommend that an effective assertive response contain several parts:
- Describe (to the other person involved) the troublesome situation as you see it. Be very specific about time and actions, don't make general accusations like "you're always hostile...upset...busy." Be objective, don't suggest the other person is a total jerk. Focus on his/her behavior, not on his/her apparent motives.
- Describe your feelings, using an "I" statement which shows you take responsibility for your feelings. Be firm and strong, look at them, be sure of yourself, don't get emotional. Focus on positive feelings related to your goals if you can, not on your resentment of the other person. Sometimes it is helpful to explain why you feel as you do, so your statement becomes "I feel ______ because ______." (see the next method).
- Describe the changes you'd like made, be specific about what action should stop and what should start. Be sure the requested changes are reasonable, consider the other person's needs too, and be willing to make changes yourself in return. In some cases, you may already have explicit consequences in mind if the other person makes the desired changes and if he/she doesn't. If so, these should be clearly described too. Don't make dire threats, if you can't or won't carry out them out.
Example assertiveness responses:
Situation: Your wife or girlfriend comes home from work and talks during dinner about office politics and rivalry. Response: "Every night this week we have spent the dinner hour talking about the personality conflicts at your office. I'm glad we can talk, but I get fed up with the pettiness, as I see it, of the people you work with. I miss talking about the news, my work, our new house plans, and how we are getting along." Poor responses: An unassertive person would suppress his anger and say nothing or pretend to be really interested. An aggressive person would blow his top, calling his wife's co-workers names and telling her how boring and petty she is.
Situation: Your husband or boyfriend looks (excessively) at attractive women. Response: "You used to be subtle about it, but lately you ogle every well built woman you see. I feel irritated that you aren't more concerned about my feelings. I really feel hurt. If you would change, I'd feel a lot better and I think it will increase our trust and closeness with each other." This response was suggested by a perceptive reader who also suggested another good response:
"I feel inadequate when I notice you looking excessively at other women. Therefore, in the future, I would appreciate it if you would ogle me instead."
Poor responses: Pretending not to notice his looking and continue hurting in silence or turning off sexually or starting to flirt (in anticipation of his having an affair). Of course, the aggressive reaction would be to call him a self-centered sex maniac and to refuse to have sex for several days.
Situation: A friend repeatedly makes plans with you and then cancels at the last minute. Response: "When we make plans and you change your mind at the last minute--you've done that two out of the last three times, I feel frustrated because it's too late to make plans with someone else. Besides, I start to think that you don't really want to be with me if you can find anything else to do. In the future, I'd like for you to tell me at least an hour in advance if you have to change plans. Would you do that?" Poor responses: Let it go, fearing the friend will get mad. Or: tell the friend how inconsiderate she is and that it is amazing she has any friends at all.
Situation: You have just been introduced to someone, but you did not learn his/her name. Response: As soon as appropriate, ask, "What is your name again?" Use it the first chance you get, so you won't forget it again. Poor responses: Let it go and try to avoid situations where you need to use his/her name. An aggressive response would be to blame him/her, "You don't speak up very well, what's your name again?"
Following these guidelines, write out in rough form some ways of responding in your problem situations.