How do you stand up for yourself without being a jerk? It's a conundrum that traps many women and (some men) in a state of frustrated passivity. We've grown up with the overt signals to "be nice" and "smile" and heard ad nauseam that when we do speak up we're "shrill" or "nasty." And there can be real consequences to acting in a forceful, outspoken manner. A recent editorial in the journal "Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice" pointed out, "Research consistently indicates that women who behave assertively by emphasizing their skills, accomplishments or leadership goals may (although not always) be seen as competent, but increase their risk of being perceived as less likable or hirable, both of which have implications for career progress."
On the flip side, not promoting your own interests can scupper your goals and sour your day-to-day life both on the job and at home. As has been well-documented, working women do significantly more housework than their male partners. They also earn less money on the dollar and are promoted to senior positions less frequently. When it comes to childcare, when moms do have a break from taking care of the kids on the weekends or days off, they are far less likely to do something fun and restorative for themselves than dads are.
It's time for an assertiveness revolution. Perceptions aren't going to change on their own. We need to teach our children that their needs matter. Another important lesson is that you don't have to be hostile or bullying in order to get what your want. Being domineering might work in the short term, but it also discounts the needs of others and keeps the cycle of aggression vs. passivity in motion. "Assertiveness involves advocating for yourself in a way that is positive and proactive," says Joyce Marter, LCPC, psychotherapist and owner of Urban Balance, LLC. It's about finding win-win solutions when possible and maintaining empathy for others while you take care of yourself.
Ask yourself the following questions: Are you constantly churning with anger inside but rarely externalize your demands or complaints? Do you mumble, whisper, hunch your body in a defensive posture or flight stance even when asking for something innocuous? Do you feel drained all the time and wonder why you are always taking care of others needs? If any of these rings true, you probably need an assertiveness tune-up.
1. Establish Boundaries
Figuring out your limits is not selfish, it's necessary to your wellbeing. If you feel overstretched and are frustrated that your needs aren't being met, listen to yourself. The first task is simply finding space to determine those boundaries when you aren't in the heat of the moment. Remember that your time is as valuable as anyone else's.
2. Frame What You Want in the Positive
On the job, setting boundaries and saying no can be particularly difficult, but if you don't, you risk burnout. With smartphones and email, it's become even more challenging to disconnect from the office. Randy Paterson, a psychologist and author of The Assertiveness Workbook, suggests saying no by saying yes: "I can accomplish X tasks today, what are the priorities?"
3. Use "I" Statements
Get comfortable with saying: "I want," "I need," or "I feel." Leading with "you always do this…" or "you never do that..." can put others on the defensive and make it more difficult to get the outcome you want. Using "I" statements is the clearest and most honest way to communicate and also promotes constructive dialogue. Meanwhile, none of us are mind readers. Another person can't necessarily intuit your unmet needs nor can you know exactly what someone else is experiencing.
Use a mirror or sympathetic friend to rehearse asking for a raise, setting boundaries with family members, or speaking up for yourself in some other important arena. Keeping things calm and to the point helps get your message across in the most effective way. Don't feel silly—this is important for your health and quality of life.
5. Release Guilt
If you have been generally passive or a people-pleaser, standing up for yourself and being assertive can be hard. Try not to compound the issue by feeling bad about asking for what you want—even when it doesn't go perfectly or annoys someone else. Buddhists call this the "second arrow," beating yourself up for a mistake or for simply doing something that felt uncomfortable. Realize this process may involve some growing pains and try to sit with that discomfort a bit. It will fade as your confidence grows. Think of assertiveness as a skill, a muscle to build, especially if you have never been encouraged or taught to be direct or self-confident in expressing your needs.
6. Take a Breather
Finally, in many situations, it's appropriate to take a pause if you find yourself becoming too emotional to express yourself in the way you desire. Try to breathe and settle yourself. There's nothing wrong with asking to revisit a subject in 15 minutes, an hour, or even the next day.