We all know how important it is to be assertive, and yet so many of us find it very hard to achieve in practice, especially if we have had some depression or social anxiety in our lives. However, assertiveness is so fundamental to health and happiness, that if we have lost it, we will need to find it again; if we don’t naturally have it, we will need to learn it.
With this is mind, I would like to take a look at assertiveness, how it works and how we might achieve it if we are not coping well at the moment.
Our right to exist
Most people think of being assertive as an external thing, as facing up to difficulties with other people in a strong manner. The reality is that the problem goes deeper. To be assertive, we must first learn to face up to some core beliefs about ourselves. We need to see what we are doing to ourselves by being unassertive, and how this is affecting us.
The chronically unassertive person is a doormat, available for everyone to walk over, and unable to do anything about it. An unassertive person might eventually burst into a fit of anger at what they see as ‘the last straw,’ but this is not being assertive — it is a symptom of the problem. To change we must look at the feelings we have about ourselves. Why do we feel so pressured by others? Why are we so easily pushed around? Why do we let them in? Why can’t we stand our ground?
I believe that the core of unassertiveness comes from low self-esteem. Because we have a low view of ourselves, we are apt to believe that other people’s beliefs about us automatically are correct. We see everyone else’s point of view as stronger than our own, because we are not secure in our ownership of our own mental space. We are like squatters when everyone else is a landowner.
Before we can be confident in defending our mental space, we need to realize that we are landowners too. We need to know that no one can come into this place unless we invite them, that no one can make us think anything unless we allow them to. The unassertive person does not know this truth, and grants almost magical powers to those who wish to control them. It is like giving the keys of your home to everyone you meet, and then hoping that they won’t move in!
The first change is to realize that we are each owners of our own mental space, we have absolute title to that place, and that is where we must live. That is where we will learn to stand our ground, and so we had better get used to living on our own land. I use the metaphors of ‘land’ and ‘ground’ deliberately, to remind myself of the solid fact of assertiveness, and where it is drawn from. Assertiveness comes from our own awareness of our right to exist.
Instead of always looking at what other people think, comparing ourselves to and worrying about how we measure up to them, let’s take a look around our own space. It’s a refreshing exercise, and sometimes we have almost forgotten how to do it. I like to look at my bookshelves at home, and remind myself that these are the books that I have chosen for myself, or take a look at my wardrobe and my favorite clothes, or my favorite foods in the kitchen cupboard. These things are an expression of me. Other people may have different tastes; that’s fine for them, but they are not me.
This is a good place to start, with just a quiet reminder of the physical fact of our existence in our own space. I don’t expect anyone to come into my home and change the books on my shelves, and I have gradually learned to trust my mental space in just the same way. These days, if I find myself having conflicting feelings about another person, I take a look at these feelings, to see what’s going on. Invariably I find that the feelings are just some old insecurity about my own position and not about the other person at all. Other people will behave in whatever way that they wish, and that is their responsibility, not mine. I have my own space to look after, and that’s what I have learned to do.
Sometimes I look at a small statue of a seated Buddha, resting happily on my desk. Buddha sits there content, smiling at the world, just – being. It’s a nice inspiration.
Next month I’ll have a look at practical assertiveness, building on the strength of occupying our own mental space, and of the ability to say ‘No.’