Perhaps you loan money that isn’t repaid. Or you hold off making your own plans because you’re waiting on someone else. You get stuck chairing another committee because you were afraid to say no. You drive out of your way to help out your sister, but she never offers to return the favor (and you never ask). These are all signs of what I call being a “human doormat”, pleasing others at your own expense, or being passive.
Signs you’re being too passive
- People take advantage of your kindness.
- You’re not appreciated.
- You feel burnt out on giving and not receiving.
- You don’t take care of yourself because you’re too busy taking care of everyone else.
- You say “yes” when you don’t want to.
- You apologize for things you didn’t do or didn’t cause.
- You feel guilty.
- You spend time with people you don’t like.
- You avoid conflict.
- You compromise your values if it means people will be happy with you.
Generosity and helping others is a good thing; I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. Many people could actually do more to help others, but some of you are giving to the point of harming yourselves. This harm may not be noticeable or it’s easy to minimize or justify as necessary for the greater good. But perhaps there’s a way for more balance in the giving and receiving so that you aren’t constantly depleted.
You need to replenish your emotional energy
To be healthy, we don’t just need nutritious food and a good night’s sleep. We also need to fuel ourselves with emotional and spiritual “good stuff”. We can meet some of these needs ourselves through self-care activities such as exercise, prayer, singing, or meditation. Other needs are fulfilled through relationships with others. This could include a hug, someone saying “thank you” or validating your feelings.
If you’re giving (or letting people take) from you without refilling your tank through self-care and fulfilling relationships, you will end up exhausted and resentful. It’s not sustainable to expend energy and not replenish it.
What gets in the way of being assertive?
When I talk with men and women who struggle to be more assertive, they notice that behind their passivity there is fear.
What fears are getting in the way of you being more assertive? What unpleasant outcome do you imagine will happen if you’re more assertive? For most of us codependent, passive-types, we’re afraid of hurting people’s feelings, we’re afraid of rejection or people walking out of our lives, we’re afraid of conflict, we’re afraid of being seen as difficult, we’re afraid that our needs won’t be met even if we ask. It’s safest and easiest to be a doormat. But it feels crappy to be treated like you don’t matter and you’re just there to make other people happy.
These are values that we were taught as children (to put others first, be generous, etc). And like I said, these aren’t bad values when they’re balanced with self-respect and self-love. In childhood, these self-sacrificing behaviors may have been essential ways to keep ourselves (or others) safe and to try to control the chaos around us. As an adult, you have more choices and more coping skills. You can find your voice and reap the rewards of being more assertive.
What is assertiveness?
Sometimes the barrier to assertive communication is confusing assertiveness with aggression. Assertiveness isn’t lashing out in anger. It’s not yelling or nagging. It’s not arguing. It’s not letting irritations and hurts build up and then dumping them all at once (verbal vomiting, as some like to call it).
Assertive communication respects you and other people. It clearly, directly, and respectfully communicates your thoughts, feelings, and needs.
Tips for practicing assertive communication:
- Check in with yourself regularly to find out what you’re feeling and what you need (you can’t ask for what you want if you don’t know what it is!).
- Prepare for difficult conversations. Plan and practice what you want to say and how you’re going to say it. Writing a script can be helpful preparation.
- Pick an optimal time to express your thoughts and feelings. Be sure you have the other person’s full attention. We all know it doesn’t work to try to talk to someone when they’re engrossed in the TV or computer; nor is it productive to talk to someone who’s under the influence or already very angry.
- If you’re angry or anxious, do something to calm yourself down.
- Ask for what you want. You have to be clear and direct in asking for your needs to be met. We often make the mistake of expecting people to just know what we want. No matter how long you’ve been married or how long you’ve worked for the same boss, it’s not fair to expect them to know what you want or need. You have to ask directly.
- Remain true to your feelings and needs. As I said earlier, asking doesn’t necessarily guarantee that your needs will be met. But, remember that you still have the right to ask.
- Use “I statements”. This technique helps you express your feelings and needs without blame. There is a simple formula for an “I statement” that sounds like this: I am feeling ____________ (unappreciated) because __________ (I went out of my way to drive you to the airport and you didn’t say thank you) and I’d like ___________ (you to acknowledge that my feelings are hurt and apologize). You can read more here.
- Respectful communication isn’t just about asking for what you need; it also requires active listening to understand the other person’s point of view.
- Assertiveness is a skill. The more you practice, the easier it will become.
The benefits of assertive communication
Why should you try this scary and uncomfortable thing called assertive communication?
Assertive communication promotes respect. People don’t respect passive, doormat behavior. They respect people who stand up for themselves and ask for what they want or need while also respecting others. Assertiveness also increases self-respect because you’ll feel good about yourself when you value your feelings and needs rather than ignoring them.
Assertive communication increases the chances of you getting your needs met. This might be your need for more rest or your need to explore other interests or your need to feel accepted and loved for who you are.
Assertiveness also increases relationship satisfaction because you’re being authentic and creating balance in your relationships. Quality relationships take both people’s needs into account; they aren’t one person always taking and one person doing all the giving.
Won’t other people be upset with your increased assertiveness? Well, they will need time and practice to adjust; it’s not easy to change relationship dynamics, but most people really do want to understand your needs and treat you well. Give them a chance to meet your needs and if they can’t, this information will inform the kind of relationship you have going forward.
©2017 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.