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Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Enemy of Assertiveness

Perhaps you’ve seen the many great articles about assertiveness here on Psychcentral over the past few years. Those articles have explained what assertiveness actually is:

standing up for yourself with a clear, even tone and words that are neither aggressive nor passive

and they’ve given helpful tips for how to be more assertive.

I would like to talk about a different aspect of assertiveness than any of that.

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The Question:

Why is assertiveness so much more difficult for some people to learn and practice than others?

The Answer:

Assertiveness is most difficult for those who grew up in households that either actively or passively discouraged emotional expression. Both are examples of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

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Growing up in a household where your emotions are either actively discouraged or punished, or simply ignored takes a toll on you, a developing child. You internalize the message that your feelings, your needs, your views don’t matter. It’s a belief that’s rooted in childhood feelings. That belief / feeling is powerful, and it stays with you throughout your life.

Don’t make waves

Don’t talk about anything negative

Don’t let anyone else know what you feel, need or think

Don’t take up too much space

All of these messages are powerful deterrents to assertiveness. They make you feel, deep within yourself, that speaking up for yourself is not only a burden to others, it’s also just plain wrong. You may not even be aware of this feeling, but nevertheless it commands you. Every day, in every difficult or conflictual situation you encounter, this feeling tells you:

You don’t have the right to have things your way.

Enter Manuel Smith, PhD, who wrote perhaps the first book about assertiveness, way back in 1975. In this book called When I Say No I Feel Guilty, he outlines Your Ten Assertive Rights. Here they are, paraphrased:

Your 10 Assertive Rights

  1. You have the right to judge your own behavior, thoughts and emotions and to be responsible for them.
  2. You have the right to offer no excuses or explanations for your decisions.
  3. You have the right to judge whether you’re responsible for solving other people’s problems.
  4. You have the right to change your mind.
  5. You have the right to make mistakes — and be responsible for them.
  6. You have the right to say, “I don’t know.”
  7. You have the right to be independent of the goodwill of others.
  8. You have the right to be illogical in making decisions.
  9. You have the right to say, “I don’t understand.”
  10. You have the right to say, “I don’t care.”

If you grew up with Emotional Neglect, you may have cringed a bit as you read Dr. Smith’s Ten Rights. Do you find them a bit excessive? Audacious? Selfish? Perhaps you grew up with some very different messages, like the ones below.

The CEN Version of Your 10 Assertive Rights

  1. You don’t have the right to judge your own behavior, thoughts and emotions, but you still must be responsible for them.
  2. You always must offer excuses or explanations for your decisions.
  3. You are responsible for solving other people’s problems.
  4. You don’t have the right to change your mind.
  5. You don’t have the right to make mistakes — but if you do, you are still responsible for them.
  6. You don’t have the right to say, “I don’t know.”
  7. You are dependent upon the goodwill of others.
  8. You don’t have the right to be illogical in making decisions.
  9. You don’t have the right to say, “I don’t understand.”
  10. You don’t have the right to say, “I don’t care.”

Perhaps in your childhood you received the CEN version of all of these rights.

Perhaps you only received a few. Either way, those beliefs are now deeply rooted within you.

Assertiveness requires a certain skill-set that you can definitely learn. But you can learn every skill involved in assertiveness and still be unable to use them.

Until you finally realize that you can use them.

Until you realize that you should.

Until you realize that, contrary to what that powerful, deeply buried CEN voice tells you:

It is your own fundamental human right to want, ask for, and have things your way.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect and how it undermines assertiveness, see EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running on Empty.

To learn more about Your 10 Assertive Rights, see the book, When I say No I Feel Guilty, by Manuel Smith, PhD

Photo by marc falardeau

Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Enemy of Assertiveness

Jonice Webb PhD

Jonice Webb has a PhD in clinical psychology, and is author of the bestselling books Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationship. She has appeared on CBS News, New England Cable News, and NPR about Childhood Emotional Neglect, and has been quoted as a psychologist expert in the Chicago Tribune and CNBC. She currently has a private psychotherapy practice in the Boston area, where she specializes in the treatment of couples and families. To read more about Dr. Webb, her books and Childhood Emotional Neglect, you can visit her website, Emotionalneglect.com.


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APA Reference
Webb PhD, J. (2016). Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Enemy of Assertiveness. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 15, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/childhood-neglect/2016/05/childhood-emotional-neglect-the-enemy-of-assertiveness/

 

Last updated: 8 May 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 8 May 2016
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.