Healthy Assertiveness

Eight years ago after I had completed my epic three-year life and personality overhaul aka three years of psychotherapy, my therapist, a certified life coach in addition to being a therapist, changed his approach.  We left the therapeutic approach behind and entered into coaching, a starkly different experience.  I likened it to being slapped in the face for thirty minutes once a week.

The cognitive work was done.  I knew what I needed to know.  The remaining trauma work would have to emerge as life happened.  It was a weird feeling, at the time, to know that my foundation was complete.  I could go on to build something.  Finally.

For the record, life coaching is 100% harder than therapy because it’s all on you.  It was a very difficult paradigm shift but a worthwhile one.  I recommend it to everyone.  One of my goals in life coaching was to better learn assertiveness.  I am still working on that goal.  I am pleasantly assertive on behalf of other people, but I still find it a struggle when I must assert myself on behalf of myself.  Asking for a divorce, however, is most likely the most assertive thing I’ve ever done, and that changed everything for me.

During my marriage, I tolerated a lot of bad behavior and mistreatment.  Even abuse at times.  What I have discovered is that when you are in a dysfunctional system, it is extremely difficult to get a proper perspective on your identity, your capabilities, reality, and possibilities for your future.  The truth becomes skewed, and you become turned around.  It’s akin to getting lost in a labyrinth.  One day you look up and around and wonder how you got there, and then the panic sets in.  How do you get out? Can you get out? How can you self-advocate when you don’t even know where you are anymore? How can you fight for yourself when you don’t even know who you are within this family system and dynamic? Everyone seems to have a point of view and doesn’t mind telling you what you should do.  “Leave.”  “Get a lawyer.”  “You’re a battered woman.”  “You’re complicit in your own abuse.”  “You’re passive.”  I’ve heard all these things, and, in the meantime, you can’t hear anything but the sound of the metaphorical water drowning you.  You are just trying to survive and figure it out while people come at you with accusatory, pointing fingers.  “You aren’t good enough.  You are a bad example.  You are too much.  You are not enough.”

Once you begin escaping the oppressive dynamics of dysfunctional family systems and relationships, it becomes much easier to see where you have been victimized in big and small ways.  Even aggressive advice-giving by well-meaning people can feel like added victimization because it is, at a minimum, invalidating and undermining.  Men, women, and children in abusive environments need support rather than judgment.  The ‘should’ statements do not validate or assume competence:

  • “You should not be tolerating that.”
  • “You should be leaving.”
  • “You should be doing better than that.”
  • “You should be making better choices.”
  • “You should be a better parent than that.”
  • “You should be learning from those mistakes.”

What if, as my therapist posed, one is doing the best that one can in a situation but is also aiming to do better? This is a DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) assumption: I am doing the best I can right now, but I also need to learn to do better.  This allows for validation in the now and room for growth as well.  It is a present/future mindset rather than a paradigm rooted in regret and constant looking back.

What I have found is that I am much more aware of relational bullshit (RBS), so to speak, now that I am leaving my marriage than I was before.  Oh, I knew that it was there.  I just didn’t know what to do about it.  I was already tolerating so much RBS in my relationship with my husband that I had little energy left to deal with it in my relationships with other people; and this, I think, comes into play when we are faced with being assertive.

A great example of this is my experience with the Grumpy Barista.  I order a fancy coffee drink, and Grumpy Barista not only makes it improperly but also refuses to correct her error.  I stammer and fidget all the while attempting to ask for her to do her job while she gives me the Death Glare.  That’s one end of the Assertiveness Spectrum.  The other end might go something like this: “You will make my coffee properly, asshole, because I paid for that coffee, and you are paid to make my coffee! So, don’t you stand there and look at me like I just asked you to babysit my kids.  You go back there and make my drink the right way, you understand me?” What might the middle of the spectrum look like? “I did not order this drink.  Would you please correct your error and make the coffee drink that I paid for? Thank you.”

When all of your energy is being used to survive your primary relationship, self-advocating goes out the window.  Becoming a doormat feels like the only option.  Or, conversely, letting your amygdala rule the show is the other option because some part of you needs to step in and provide protection since no one else will.  Consequently, you end up with extreme behaviors.  You either bend over and take it (like I tend to do), or you dish it out before anyone can even blink twice at you.  This makes it very hard to have healthy interactions, healthy relationships, and engage in truth-telling and truth-seeing.

One of the goals of a good therapeutic and life coaching relationship is to learn at what places in your life you are occupying extreme positions and then move to the middle.  For me, I was reactionary due to PTSD; I would freeze.  I did not know how to properly self-advocate.  I would see the improper behavior but not know how to respond.  Some people come out with both guns blazing.  I would appear to do nothing.  I would take it.  This is why those toxic, judgmental ‘should’ statements are so damaging.  Oftentimes, people say them to attempt to motivate others to take action: “You should do something!” What is not understood is that perceived passivity is often an honest reaction.  It is the sympathetic nervous system’s response to stress manifesting itself as a freeze response or even a flight response.  Not everyone has a fight response.  I do not when it comes to self-advocacy.  I do, however, for other people.

We unlearn our latent freeze/flight/fight responses over time and practice true self-advocacy through mindfulness and in validating environments and relationships.  Dismantling the sympathetic nervous system’s tyranny over our mind and body is as simple as learning deep breathing exercises and as complicated as utilizing that skill every time, and this requires a developed self-awareness and sense of safety that come with increased safe relationships in our lives accompanied by a sense that we are capable of making good choices for ourselves.  We are capable.  We are strong.  We are competent.

Healthy assertiveness comes, I believe, as healthy relationships increase and validating environments grow.  We are allowed to try and fail, and then try again.  The good news here is that we have so much more influence over these elements than we probably ever believed we did.


Relaxed and Contented: Activating the Parasympathetic Wing of Your Nervous System

2 Comments on “Healthy Assertiveness

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