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Assertively You

In today’s culture it’s common for people to shy away from speaking their truth, saying what they mean, and being up front about what they think and feel. A hot topic for most people is talking about their feelings--aside from being seen as weak, people might think they become vulnerable to other peoples’ abuses if they speak about or acknowledge their feelings at all. Acceptable emotions are typically anger or happiness. A certain level of anger is acceptable because it represents strength and confidence, and happiness is acceptable because it means no expectations are required of anyone else when someone is happy. When we can’t access the freedom to communicate our thoughts or feelings without fear of rejection or retribution, we take these thoughts and feelings inward, and the result is often negative thinking, self-criticism or self-deprecation, self-blame, worry, anxiety, hopelessness, stress, resentment toward others, and probably several more that could be added to that list. What you can also note about how this cultural phenomenon is how it impacts people’s behavior.

The idea that we can’t speak honestly with respect, and that anger or happiness are the only socially acceptable emotions to have, people can often resort to aggressive and passive-aggressive behaviors. Being aggressive hurts other people, and being passive aggressive may hurt other people but you’re likely taking more of an internal burden on yourself. Aggressive behavior is pretty obvious to spot. Of course we see this or can imagine this when a bar fight breaks out, a customer begins yelling at a cashier for not accepting a coupon or working fast enough, a parent yelling at a soccer coach for not playing their kid, or someone with road rage trailing and following you to intimidate you. It’s easy to acknowledge that aggressive behavior is not acceptable, even though plenty of people behave aggressively. Even people that behave aggressively may be able to spot other people being aggressive, and have an awareness that that other person’s aggression is not okay. A person who tends to behave aggressively may not apply the same rules to themselves because in the moments they become aggressive, they have justified that their aggression is okay (at least while they are being aggressive). Again, anger is a socially acceptable feeling, as weird as that sounds, which is why people tend to justify their aggressive behavior by utilizing the anger brought on by what they consider an incredibly unjust situation. Some people might even side with the aggressor.

Passive aggressive behavior is an interesting alternative. Passive aggression may come from people who recognize their needs are not being met, but know that they are not capable of aggression or know that aggression is not a means to an end for them. You may be familiar with passive aggressive behavior if you have had a narcissistic parent who undermined your value in small but impactful ways throughout your childhood, and maybe even adulthood. Maybe you recognize your own passive aggressive behavior--classic examples such as when you and a roommate or family member refuse to do the dishes and you wait it out until someone cracks. If you get a lot of pent up anger about that kind of situation, I’m guessing it’s likely you that cracks first. If it’s not the dishes, it’s probably the trash. Spitting in someone’s food would also be an example, because the spitter is not confronting the person honestly--or they’re just sick. If you are passive aggressive on the road, you’re likely yelling or talking to people profanely knowing that they can’t really hear you. Passive aggression is also not a means to an end, but it may feel good in the moment like aggression, and unlike aggression there’s usually no consequences on the other side of the behavior where you have to face yourself or your offender. You can just get back at them and move on.

Neither of these communication styles is a means to an end, but what’s the in between? How can people communicate effectively about their thoughts and feelings without feeling like they are letting their entire guard down and without feeling like a fool? Assertive communication is the key. Assertiveness allows people to speak their truth, stay firm, be honest, don’t back down, and sometimes allows people to be heard by the other party. For your purpose, I have attached an assertiveness worksheet to help you identify assertive responses and tips. The basic premise of being assertive is that you stick to making “I” statements, which basically means you focus on what you think and feel, to avoid pointing out blame on the other person. This can help make your message more receptive if the person you’re dealing with is particularly difficult. You can also offer ultimatums such as, “If you’re not going to honor my refund, then I will be taking my business elsewhere and will make sure to file a report with the better business bureau.” Of course this is communicated in a calm but firm tone of voice. If you find that your emotions, when running high, cause you to raise your voice without your awareness, you can practice assertive speech by recording yourself and listening to what other people end up hearing. You can also pretend you’re speaking in a library or at a play if you know your emotions are already high and that you might be at risk of raising your voice. This will offset whatever volume might unintentionally be added to your voice. The worksheet provided also shows what NOT to say, such as aggressive statements. The second attachment provided also shows the different thoughts and behaviors between passive, assertive, and aggressive mindsets.

No one is perfect at communication or speaking their truth and asking for their needs. One of the most difficult things to do is to advocate for yourself, without going overboard to self-destructive aggression or passive aggression. I hope you find these guides to be helpful as you are navigating rebuilding your strength and confidence in the continuously chaotic world!

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