What a shame! Assertiveness is not something we learn at school, so if you cannot learn it from your parents, because they never learned it from their own parents, then you can be easily manipulated and pushed over.
Everybody hates being pushed over. I see it as a natural part of life. We all do everything we can to improve our position, and if others are in our way, we push them aside. Sometimes, well, most times, we hurt people along the way without any bad intentions. Assertiveness can help us do better in life without hurting anyone.
Many of my clients mainly need assertiveness. When we do not have it and we cannot express our needs and assert our rights, we resort to either avoidance or aggression. It is the old “fight and flight” response. We see a lion or a snake and we either run away or attack. So when I see aggression or avoidance, I know that assertiveness is needed.
I understand my clients really well, because I did not grow up in an assertive family. My parents were not very good at promoting self-expression, and growing up in a small house with five kids and hardworking parents was pretty much like living in the jungle. As a child, I chose the aggressive side. Self-expression was out of the question for me, and I only started to express myself at the age of 14, when I began to write.
Aggressive behavior or avoidance usually happen when parents use traditional ways of parenting using pressure, power, control, guilt, conditional love, threats and bribing. This was the way most parents treated their kids in the past.
This is a vicious cycle. If we do not stop now, we will treat our kids the same way and they will be like us. When we use these methods, we raise kids who are afraid to express themselves and be assertive.
I do not blame my parents, because they grew up like this all their life. For them, expressing yourself, standing up for your rights, saying honestly what you believe in, without hurting others, was too risky. Much like many other families, my parents crossed over to the other side of the street when they saw someone who was rude to them. Avoidance was their tool and it was very complicated in many ways. It is good to understand that avoidance is no better than aggression, because it leaves you with a bad feeling of resentment. Aggression hurts others, while avoidance hurts you.
For years, I alternated between aggression and avoidance, but there is a middle ground.
27 years ago, Gal and I lost thousands of dollars because of something a friend did, and we said nothing at all. We figured out what happened with our friend when there was nothing we could do anymore. Assertiveness is not always saying what you think. It is important to choose your battles.
I love the serenity prayer, which reminds me that it is better to be wise than to be right. Think of life as driving a car. When you have the right of way, if you barge into the intersection when someone else is not following the rules, it will not be wise. You will be right, but dead! Your headstone will say, “Died being right!”
Before learning assertiveness, we must first understand how we get into a situation where what is important to us does not really matter. I think we are all born helpless, having to explain every behavior that does not go hand in hand with the adults’ expectations of us. When we do things well, no one asks us how and why, but when we do not, we immediately have to explain, often apologize and 100% of the time give the adults the feeling that we have learned our lesson.
The truth is that we learn our lesson with everything that happens to us and it happens even if we cannot explain it verbally. Also, the adults in our life often expect us to do things they cannot do themselves…
Assertiveness requires separation
Most people live with the idea that what they do must have reasonable justification that will be acceptable by those who are close to them, above them or in charge of them. Without the approval of others, they have many doubts about their own decision-making and life. The more we care about what others think of us, the less assertive we are! Why? Because our own best interest is not our top priority, as it should be!
It is good to remember that people will always have things to say, especially when they are not confident about themselves and everything that others think or do differently seems to them like a threat.
What others think about you is none of your business! Most people I share this with express concerns that this expression is selfish, closed minded and uncaring. In fact, it is a very assertive phrase. You accept what other people say about you is their opinion, but you do not have to accept it as yours. Assertiveness starts with this separation.
About seven years ago, I traveled with Gal and the kids to visit our families overseas. One day, after Gal and I came from friends’ house at 1am, we saw our kids and my parents watching one of those reality TV shows about betrayal and relationship breakups. I was shocked! I told my mum that we did not watch TV at home and this was not an appropriate show for 7 and 13-year-old kids.
She said was am making a big fuss out of nothing and I got the kids to bed. A couple of days later, I went to visit a family member and as soon as she saw me, she said, “Ronit, what’s your big thing about TV?” I explained.
The following week, we visited a distant relative and she said to me, “Ronit, what did I hear about your anti-TV obsession?” I explained.
During five weeks, every place I went, people asked me about it, and I realized I had probably not been assertive enough and my objections to my kids’ TV exposure had been perceived as criticism about my family’s TV habits and about them allowing their kids to watch TV.
We had some deep conversations with friends who were honest enough to tell us that migrating to another country was judgment of their choice to stay.
I had to be wise and choose my battles carefully. The Serenity Prayer helped.
Can I change what they get out of watching TV or allowing their kids to watch adult reality TV at 1am (at home, my kids go to bed at 8:30pm)? No! I am here for a short time and whatever they think of me was their business.
Do I have the right to change what they think? No! I think my philosophy is right for me, and it does not have to be right for everyone in order for me to hold it.
Do I criticize them for allowing their kids to watch such things? Yes! But they can do whatever they want with their own children. My children are my responsibility!
Do I have to share my opinion? No! What I think of them is none of their business either.
Do I need to give up what I believe so that they stop thinking I am obsessed with TV? Absolutely not!
So, I ended up the discussion by saying in a firm, determined, non-apologetic way, “Gal and I have decided that this is the way we want to raise our kids and that’s it”. When they kept on asking, I repeated the sentence, in a firm, determined, non-aggressive way, “Gal and I have decided that this is the way we want to raise the kids”.
Before that, I had tried to explain my opinion, but no more! Later, we talked to the kids again about it and drew their attention to the fact that we had spent about $20,000 on this visit, so we should use it wisely, because we could watch TV back home. They took this on board (wise kids).
I have to say I was very relieved to get home and go back into our routine without reality TV, horror movies, late nights and late mornings. It made me think about how easy it was to raise my kids without having to report, justify, explain, apologize or seek approval for every aspect of my parenting. It had been an exhausting five weeks in my parenting and my children questioned many of our philosophies, watching kids that go to sleep any time they want, eat any junk that in the area, do not help to make dinner and talk disrespectfully to their parents. Gal and I knew that when we came back home, this would be our real test and it took us two weeks of mostly jetlag to get back to our daily routine and Gal and I passed the test with flying colors.
Assertiveness means that you do not have to accept what other people expect you to do and that when you do things differently to others, you do not have to justify your actions, thoughts and beliefs. It is OK to believe in something and live by it, even if others disagree or live differently. Live and let live! You do not have to share your judgment about others and you do not have to accept theirs.
Join me next week for another assertiveness post about the connection between privacy and assertiveness.