Self-assertiveness is a major theme in my work with clients. I work predominantly with clients with issues with eating, and it is very common for clients with issues with eating to “restrict” their emotions and thoughts, resulting in unwanted bingeing or purging behaviors. Learning to speak up for oneself is an important part of the healing process. I’ve also found that, among the skill sets that I encourage, it is probably among the most difficult to learn and to execute.
So why is it so hard to speak up?
What I’ve found is that we shy away from speaking our minds for four core reasons:
We don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings.
One of the most difficult things we can learn to do is to give constructive feedback. Giving feedback means that we are supposed to be honest and authentic about how we feel about someone and the way that they operate. Usually, there will be elements that we’d like them to do differently, and being assertive with these thoughts means we are supposed to say those things. Out loud. In front of them. I mean, how is that NOT terrifying?
What I’ve learned about self-assertion is that often the anticipation of the thing is worse than the thing itself. In quality relationships in all forums of life, people want to know what we think and feel – even if it involves them (sometimes especially if it involves them). True, it might sting them just a little – but it also has the potential to lead to greater understanding in the long run.
We don’t want our own feelings to be hurt.
If we plan to self-assert by giving constructive feedback, it follows that we then must also be open to receiving constructive feedback. In open and authentic conversation, we are committing to the idea that the person with whom we are conversing is going to tell things to us straight. This is scary because it might mean that someone wants us to change something about ourselves or how we do things, and this implies that we are currently being or doing things in a way that isn’t 100% perfect. Yikes!
So here’s a helpful mantra to use about hearing assertive feedback – “Every authentic conversation is a learning opportunity, and I am always open to learning and growing.” Most of us want to be the best that we can be, and sometimes (often) we have personal blind spots that others can see. If they are brave enough to respectfully let us know, we can try to be brave enough to receive this gift and hear them.
We fear being perceived as selfish.
I’m not sure how “self-care” and “selfish” got mixed up, but these two very different concepts seem to appear synonymous to many of us struggling to self-assert. So here’s the difference: Self-care might mean verbally asserting a healthy boundary by stating that we do not want to go to a friend’s party on a Friday evening because we had a very long work week and just need to go to bed early. Selfish might mean inviting half the party to come over to our house, (and asking them to bring us some cake, too), emptying out our friends’ party and leaving some folks uninvited. Self-care implies taking consideration for one’s own wants and needs, in addition to those of others. Selfish implies considering only one’s wants and needs, sometimes at the expense of the wants and needs of others.
See the difference?
We fear potential consequences.
It never fails that, when I’m working with adolescent clients on self-assertion, the reason that they will give for not wanting to speak up for themselves is, “Theyll take my iPhone away.” (And often, they aren’t wrong). There are grown-up versions of “They’ll take my iPhone away,” too. These include, “They won’t give me a promotion,” “They won’t like me anymore,” “They will become angry with me,” “They’ll withold sex/money/etc.” Some versions are quite serious, like “They might hurt me” or “They might retaliate against me.”
This reason not to self-assert holds weight, and in these instances, it’s important to spend time thinking it through to determine what is in our best interest before speaking up. In therapy, it might become important to create plans to help tolerate or avoid difficult circumstances in which significant consequences are feared, until an escape plan can be hatched. Often, if serious consequences are anticipated, it’s an indication that we are in a job, relationship, or role that might be unhealthy, and it’s time to reassess our options.
Open, direct communication is hard to do, but often, it is the precursor to greater depth of relationships and understanding. Taking the time to assess the origins of our fears of self-assertion is helpful in determining how/when/whether to gently challenge ourselves, and speak up.