Posts Tagged ‘assertiveness’

I’ve been trying to think of what other 2012 life lesson I should write about today. It’s problematic because I feel like I’ve learned so much, and I don’t want to choose only one thing. So I’m going to bypass this problem by making a list (and you all know how much I love lists).

Things I Have Learned in 2012:

  1. Being assertive is important.
  2. Ditto being open and authentic.
  3. I know how to make a mean cranberry sauce.
  4. Setting boundaries means I have more energy for being social.
  5. Chicago has a world-class art museum. I want to go back.
  6. Hurricanes can hit when you least expect them.
  7. First person point of view has a lot of nuances that are fun to play with. So do unreliable narrators. These two things are related.
  8. I am happier when I make my writing a top priority. I also accomplish a lot more.
  9. When you are confident, you hold your body differently. When you hold your body differently, you become more confident.
  10. Nobody is perfect. (This is quite a relief for all concerned.)
  11. Starbucks serves their pumpkin spice chai lattes all year round. Although I’ve yet to test this.
  12. People say wise things all the time if you pay attention.
  13. It doesn’t actually rain every day in Seattle.
  14. There is such a thing as too nice.
  15. Too much stress, and I’m in pain and/or sick.
  16. I’m better at making hard decisions than I give myself credit for.
  17. Life really is stranger than most fiction. Things happen that you could never get away with putting in a story.
  18. It’s okay to ask for help.
  19. New Year resolutions can sometimes be a very good idea.
  20. I like pie. (All right, I already knew this one.)
  21. Feeling an urgent need to succeed is something that happens at the beginning of the journey to mastery. Somewhere in the middle of the journey, I chill out and can focus more on the actual work.
  22. No matter how many books I have to read, I can always find more books I’d like to read, particularly if I venture into a bookstore.
  23. It can be useful to learn to embrace failure, since being okay with it allows you to take bigger risks and accomplish bigger things.
  24. Change takes time.
  25. People are infinitely adaptable.
  26. Seeing life through a lens of gratitude increases levels of happiness.
  27. So do little dogs. Probably also cats.
  28. So does loving yourself.
  29. Time keeps passing. And passing. And passing. No matter what happens or does not happen.
  30. Suffering and adversity can reveal great beauty.

What did you learn in 2012?

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1. Assertiveness is not the same as decisiveness. Some of my friends disagree with me on this one, but I actually feel very strongly about it. Sometimes the most assertive thing to say in a situation is “I don’t know.” Maybe you need more time or more information before you can form an opinion or make a decision. Not being assertive would mean allowing someone else to push you into a decision before you are ready, possibly in the name of “decisiveness.” Assertiveness also doesn’t close the door on changing our minds, which is something else I feel strongly about.

2. Assertiveness is stating your opinion and showing yourself to the world. Even though you might be wrong. Even though you aren’t perfect. Even though people might not care or want to hear what you have to say. Even though everyone won’t agree with you. I think the courage to do this in a strong but balanced way comes from a sense of self worthiness.

3. Assertiveness is asking for what you want/need. Even when doing so is scary. Even when it might make the person you’re talking to think less of you, or not like you, or feel emotions. Maybe especially then.

4. Assertiveness is being okay when someone says no. Which, if you’re asking for what you want on a regular basis, is definitely going to happen. Emotions might happen when someone says no, and that’s fine…as long as you don’t act on them and instead deal with them in a mature way that works for you.

That is one assertive apple. (Photo by Fernando Revilla)

5. Assertiveness is gathering information. Maybe some people aren’t okay with you being assertive. Maybe some people repeatedly say no, don’t do what they say they’re going to do, or behave towards you in ways that you’re not okay with. This sucks. But it’s good to know so you can make decisions based on reality instead of what you wish was true. The kind of fabulous people you want in your life aren’t going to be trampling all over your boundaries all the time like it’s some kind of sport.

6. Assertiveness is allowing other people to have their own feelings and their own issues instead of taking those on as your own. The more I pay attention to this, the more I realize hardly anything that happens is actually about me. It’s about the mood someone else is in, or they’re worried about xyz that has nothing to do with me, or they want something so much they’re not even paying attention to me, or they’re behaving in this bizarre way because of some childhood trauma or the way they were raised or because they’re been compelled to do so by the power of Cthulu. At a certain point, it doesn’t matter why. Our job is to take care of ourselves by asking for what we want, sometimes saying no, and dealing with our own emotions. Our job is not to take on everyone else’s stuff.

7. Assertiveness is embracing the awkward and the uncomfortable. Change is sometimes awkward. Saying no can be awkward. Being honest can be awkward. Being vulnerable can be awkward. Letting someone know how you feel can be uncomfortable. Letting someone know they’ve behaved in an inappropriate way can be uncomfortable. I’ve grown very skilled at making people feel comfortable over the years, which is fabulous when you’re teaching voice lessons. However, assertiveness sometimes requires allowing those awkward moments and uncomfortable silences to happen instead of smoothing them over.

8. Assertiveness is respecting yourself. There is that old truism about how you can only truly help other people after you’ve taken care of yourself. I completely agree with this statement, but I also think it’s a way to dance around the truth so people pleasers might actually listen. That truth? Respecting and caring for yourself is inherently important and valuable. It means you have healthy self esteem and can go rock the world with your own personal brand of awesome.

A year and a half later, and look at the Backbone Project go!

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I screwed up last week. Multiple times.

Photo by Kate Sumbler.

Here’s what happened. I got really excited about that vulnerability TED talk, which you can probably tell by reading what I’ve written about it. And I decided I wanted to be vulnerable about All the Things…or at least several of the things. So I was pushing myself on multiple fronts at pretty much the same time, which meant two weeks in which so much was going on and so much of it was challenging and emotional exhaustion now.

Apparently this is called a vulnerability hangover, but to me, possibly because I was so enthusiastic, it felt more like a vulnerability OMFG eight car pile-up on the freeway. Fun times.

But there was a strategy behind my madness! Or you know, maybe I’m just incredibly skilled at finding the bright side of the lemonade in that strange-colored cloud over there. But as it turns out, one way of finding out what we most need to work on is to push ourselves to a failure point and then watch what happens. (I don’t necessarily recommend this, by the way; but if it’s happened anyway, you might as well learn something from it, right?)

So as it turns out, my failure point was not being assertive enough. And I didn’t fail at this once, oh no. I failed at it multiple times. Like at least three, and realistically probably more than three. So I know it’s something worth focusing on for the next however-many-months-it-takes. Interestingly, I’ve written an article for this blog entitled “How to Become More Assertive,” but upon re-reading it, I’m not finding it super helpful, so obviously I need to write a new article all about it in the not-too-distant future.

I don’t like writing this. I don’t like telling you how I failed. I procrastinated for a couple of hours before I could make myself type this up. I watch bloggers like Penelope Trunk and James Altucher who let it all hang out and write all about their often spectacular failures, and I’m completely riveted even while I’m thinking to myself, “Wow, I could never do that.” Even now I’m not giving any particulars, which I tell myself is to protect the innocent but in reality is mostly me being a wimp.

But here’s the thing. I want to write about what making change looks like. And change involves taking risks and making mistakes and failing, sometimes repeatedly. It’s not like a training montage in a movie, and it’s not like that moment of realization in novels when the protagonist figures out what is really important. It’s messier than that. And it takes a lot longer than five minutes and seven costume changes.

But it’s part of the process. I keep reading about how the bad and the good go together: how suffering can presage positive change, how failure leads to success, how we embark on the hero’s journey and come back wiser. How before we can rebuild, we have to tear down. Change is certainly interesting and rewarding, but it is not easy.

So I’ll begin thinking about assertiveness. And I’ll fail to be assertive a lot, in a variety of situations, in a myriad of different and creative ways. And gradually I’ll become better at it, and I’ll mess up less often.

This is what change looks like.


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I haven’t been writing recently about being a people pleaser, or becoming more assertive, and other topics like that. You know why? Because it’s hard. It’s hard to change how you react to things. It’s hard to tear your life apart, examine it from every angle, and then slowly put it back together again. I often put pieces on backwards, or they just don’t fit right even though I’m hammering at them for dear life.

But then I read this essay by Penelope Trunk, who is, as you know, one of my favorite bloggers, and I realized I should write about it more. Here is what she had to say:

“It’s hard to know who to take advice from. But my instinct tells me that the best advice comes from the people with the most difficulties. Not in the past. But right now. Because that’s where you want to be: doing something difficult right this moment.”

So yeah. I’m doing something difficult right now, so maybe it is worth talking about, even though it’s dangerous and messy and I don’t have all the answers. I don’t want to give you advice as much as I want to illustrate that people can in fact do this–that people can change themselves, that people can look at themselves and say, I could be a lot happier than I am, and then take positive steps to make it so. Because I meet so many people who seem to think that almost everything is impossible, and that just isn’t true.

Here are two things that happen when you have actually made strides at changing your people pleaser tendencies: people will freak the hell out, and you will realize you have spent most of your life listening to very bad advice.

People will freak out because, even if they are actually decent people (and sadly, some of them aren’t), they are used to you being a doormat. You suddenly deciding you’re not a doormat is vastly inconvenient and confusing. It disrupts the normal patterns of all your relationships. Even the people who are generally supportive of this change will sometimes freak out, because oh my god change and where do they fit into this new picture?

As for the bad advice, it’s amazing how willing many people are to support you making decisions that are outright harmful for you. Society as a whole is quite okay with this notion too. There are two forces at work here. There are the people who are taking advantage of you in some way. It is obviously in their best interest to give you bad advice about continuing to be a doormat with everyone; they have a vested interest in you continuing to drink the Kool-aid. And there are the people who are doormats just like you, who don’t have good advice to give since they are in the same unfortunate position, and who wouldn’t give the good advice anyway because then it might force them to examine their own position, which they don’t want to do because of the chaos that would then ensue in their own lives.

Of course, once you have that lightbulb moment in which you realize how generally absurd most of this advice is (and wouldn’t that make a fun post one of these days?), there is no turning back. You have taken the red pill, and you begin to wonder: why was pleasing these people ever so important in the first place? So instead you sit back and watch them freak out, and you remember that you are worth it. And you keep resisting the gravitation pull of going back to the old comfortable ways that were holding you down.


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Last week I wrote about some of the symptoms of being a people pleaser, and I promised to share techniques I’ve used to move away from that behavior. I wish I could write an article entitled “How to Become the Happier and More Assertive You in Four Easy Steps,” but the truth of the matter is that it probably won’t be easy, and some of the strategies I’ve used might not work for you. Whenever we set out to change ourselves, especially in such a significant way, we are engaged in the personal equivalent of scaling Mount Everest. Should we set such lofty goals for ourselves? YES! But we also need to pace ourselves, be gentle to ourselves, and expect some setbacks along the way.

I’ve found the following to be helpful:

1. Blogging: Yes, you already know how in love with blogging I am. But there’s a neat side effect that helps with assertiveness. In order to write a decent blog, I have to share my thoughts and opinions on a regular basis. Twice a week, in fact. And people read them. After blogging for over nine months, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable sharing my thoughts and opinions in person as well. It’s begun to feel natural because I do it so often.

And for those of you saying, “But no one would read my blog,” I would respond that what matters the most about this technique is that you’vre sharing your opinion and you’re making it public. Even if tons of people aren’t reading, they could read anytime in the future. Especially if you link your blog posts to your Facebook and Twitter accounts, which I think you should do. It’s about the practice of entering a certain frame of mind more than it’s about page view numbers.

2. Providing structure: When we know that we are people pleasers, there are certain aspects of our behavior that we can predict. For example, I know that I’m going to struggle to say no in many situations. Especially in situations that regularly repeat themselves, we can create a framework to help us behave in the way we want to behave rather than the way we tend to behave.

Even though I’m a people pleaser, I started a service-oriented business. Can you imagine all the things that could go wrong with that combination? But right from the beginning, I was extremely dedicated to my business policy. I spent a few years tweaking it until it worked the way I wanted it to work, and then I made every client sign the policy before we’d start lessons. That way, whenever I had to say no–and there were many, many such times–I had a template I could fall back on. “I hear that you want x, but I’m afraid that my policy states that I don’t do x.” This also protected me from worry stemming from being overly conscientious and making excuses for my clients, because since they had signed the document, I knew they knew what our agreement was. (Other examples of creating structure might be a weekly scheduled and inviolate “me time” or a strict definition of when a certain task is “finished” to avoid over perfectionism.)

3. Insisting on respect and surrounding ourselves with supportive people:This is a tricky one because as people pleasers, we aren’t very good at this. We want to believe the best of everyone, we want everyone to like us, we want to help everyone because we have such an overflow of empathy, and we attract people who are at best inattentive and at worst may be trying to take advantage of an easy target. Sometimes it is easy for us to believe that everyone lives like this. Well, news flash: They don’t.
Interestingly, what I’ve found is that when I’m able to present myself in a more confident and assertive manner, I stop attracting many of the people who want to take advantage of my niceness (and those I do attract, I tend to recognize more quickly). And I’m able to present myself better when I’m not weighed down by said people. A bit of a Catch-22, isn’t it? We don’t want to let go of our unhealthy relationships because then we’ll be lonely, but until we do, we won’t meet more supportive people, and guess what? We’ll still be lonely.That’s why I use the word “insisting” above. Do you know how many times a week I tell myself, “Amy, you deserve to be treated well” or “Amy, you are interesting and worthy of respect” or “Stop being so hard on yourself, you’re doing the best you can?” Well, it depends on how bad a week I’m having, but it’s usually many, many times. I’m in the process of reprogramming the way my brain responds, so the more repetitions, the better. Eventually I begin to really believe it, and then I find myself arguing with the car salesman who is being rude to me (something I would never have done even a year or two ago). Even though it’s difficult at first, I think aggressive setting of boundaries can be very helpful when people pleasers are trying to create an environment for themselves that involves more mutual respect.

4. Exploring root causes and putting your foot down: Ultimately there is probably a reason (or many reasons) why we are people pleasers. Our behavior had to start somewhere, right? At some point we had to decide (often unconsciously) that being a people pleaser was a good life strategy. Maybe we had an important role model who was a people pleaser. Maybe our people pleasing behavior was rewarded in certain ways (or maybe other behavior was punished). Maybe our contributions were devalued, or perhaps we took society’s “good girl” myth a little (or a lot) too far. If we address our behavior from its root cause, the results can be dramatic. Once we’ve identified the cause, we have a better understanding of our behavior, and from understanding comes empowerment. (Sometimes we’ll do this backwards, acting in an empowered way as we’ve been practicing, and then realizing the root cause from the results. Either way works.)

This is a hard but rewarding journey. Some people in your life won’t be too happy about your growing self-respect. This is sad but inevitable, and will cause conflict (the conflict you may have been avoiding all this time). Other people will be cheering you on the whole way. And you may begin to feel more like the real you, an amazing person who’s just been waiting for a chance to shine.

And now, dear readers, it’s your turn. Any additional strategies or examples you can share? (I love examples because they allow us to visualize possibilities.) I’d love to hear from you!

Edit: I’ve written more about being assertive here.

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I’ve been working to become more assertive (and less like a doormat) for a long, long time. I think it was in seventh or eighth grade that I realized that my shyness was a problem that would hold me back, and I’ve been peeling various layers from this issue ever since. While it’s true that I used to be an introvert (and maybe I still am, depending on your definition of the term ambivert), introversion hasn’t ultimately been the cause of my problem. Much more pervasive and destructive of my peace of mind and overall happiness has been my tendency to be a people pleaser.

Mac (from the TV show Veronica Mars) shows some signs of being a people pleaser.

This insidious condition shows itself in many guises. At its worst, here are some of the symptoms:

– constant placement of others above yourself, often without much thought or communication. (Please note the word constant. This isn’t the opposite of being selfish so much as it is door mat behavior.)
– constant second guessing of your interactions with others
– being quick to feel guilt
– conflict aversion (desire to avoid making people unhappy/upset/angry)
– allowing people to take advantage of you, OR struggling to prevent this and feeling overly upset as a direct consequence; inability to say no or stand up for yourself
– ease of seeing another person’s point of view and using this skill to make excuses for them
– getting ensnared in one-sided conversations, in which the other person basically delivers a monologue, won’t ask you questions about yourself, and will do their best to divert the conversation back to them at all times
– perfectionism; a lingering worry that if you fail to be perfect, people will no longer like you
– a sense of isolation; feeling that nobody cares

Early Willow

Early Willow (circa Seasons 1-3) is definitely a people pleaser to watch out for.

Just to be clear, this list is no longer an accurate description of my state of mind. I’ve had twenty years to improve, after all, and I’m nothing if not dogged. (Some people think stubbornness is a bad thing. Does not compute. It’s one of my most useful traits.) But these are the sorts of things I have to guard against because I might fall into one or more of them if I’m not paying attention or am otherwise not at my best (ie sick, tired, worried, discouraged, etc.).

These are the social responses I was raised to have, compounded by female gender expectations to “be nice”. Unfortunately, they are not particularly effective if one wants to have a happy life that isn’t completely overrun by anxiety. They are also not helpful if one wants to be treated with care and respect. (Sad to say, there are plenty of people out there who will treat others with disrespect unless doing so has personal consequences–consequences that people pleasers are often ill-equipped to give.)

I’m writing about this problem because I know there are many people out there who struggle with one or more items on my list. And yet so often we don’t talk about it, and sometimes we even pressure each other to conform more to societal expectations of the unhealthy roles we play. (Have you ever looked up general interpersonal advice on the internet? It can get pretty scary.)

Next week I’m going to write about some of the thoughts and strategies, especially those I’ve discovered more recently, that have helped me break out of the people pleaser mold. In the meantime, can anyone think of any fictional characters who fall into people pleaser territory? Have any questions or experiences you want to share? Comment below!

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