Our world is filled today with double standards, one of which is what I’ll call here the “speak up/shut up” double standard. As women we are taught by society and oftentimes by generations before us to be quiet, demure, submissive and silent. If a woman were to follow this misguided ideal, she is likely to be assaulted in one way or another. When this happens, because it eventually will, it is instantly her fault for not speaking up at the time. The woman is then subjected to a victim blaming parade from the same people who groomed her to fall victim. Rinse, lather, repeat. A woman who has broken this cycle is usually then dubbed a bitch, as she is going to talk back and possibly-god forbid-assert herself and protect herself. The choice is left to either be an at-fault victim or a castrating bitch. I refuse to accept this.
Some years ago when I started coming into my own, I took a great deal of effort to study and practice assertiveness. This is the middle ground that we need to embrace and own as women, and as responsible people in society. I’ve complied some ideas, exercises, and items from various sources here to help get the ball rolling. This will be an on-going series with a discussion board set aside for questions, comments, experiences, and the like for us to share and compare. I am not an expert in assertiveness, but one does not need to be an expert to practice and share information. We’re all teachers and students in life, so come learn and teach with me, as we explore the idea of standing up for ourselves in a polite and effective way.
1. A Rose by any other name
To understand a concept, one must first understand the word. To create context I’ll go through a few words on the “scale of assertiveness,” which is a term I just made up.
Passive – submissive, without control, unresisting, allowing action or words to happen without protest, not relaying your feelings or views, avoiding conflict despite the cost to yourself; i.e.: A man repeatedly hits on you with unwanted attention at work and you do not ask him to stop for fear of whatever consequence.
Passive-Aggressive – submissive in conflict and direct confrontation but then acting aggressively later in seemingly unrelated matters, resentful, unwilling to communicate directly; i.e.: A man repeatedly hits on you with unwanted attention at work and you give him a wrong phone number.
Assertive – grounded and vocal, polite, calm, rational, comfortable, centered, confident, direct, clear with your feelings, wants, and needs; i.e.: A man repeatedly hits on you with unwanted attention at work and you tell him to stop because you are not interested.
Aggressive – hostile, violent, uncontrolled, forceful, rash, harsh, retaliation, attacking, invading, violating; i.e.: A man repeatedly hits on you with unwanted attention at work and you knee him in the balls and tell him he cannot ever come to your place of employment again.
Think of the above as a spectrum from which we drift side-to-side within every time we communicate with others. As with many things in life, there is a time and place for everything. There may be times when it is acceptable and even advised to use any one of these methods of response, but more often than not the ideal choice would be assertiveness.
Assertiveness is how most business is conducted in mainstream America today. It is how doctor-patient relationships tend to work. It is the ideal method for teachers and students, and for parents and children. Despite its lofty goals, this method of communication is rarely taught. It is ridiculous to hold people to expectations when they are ignorant of the expectations. Without knowing how to be assertive, we will never actually be assertive. It is, thankfully, a skill that can be taught and practiced.
Let me again take this moment to highlight that I am not trained or certified in any way to teach this skill. I have some experience with group training classes to learn the skills myself, and have done reading, short workshops, and exercises with trained professionals, but I am still learning and mastering these skills. Still, as there are many people who know more than I do, there may be some people who know less, and this may be helpful for them to get started.
2. How We Roll
The way that has worked best for me in learning better communication is the way I studied things in college: theory and practice. I’ll go through the ideas, words, explanations, reference people who are far more advanced than myself, and then suggest ways to practice and test yourself and your new skills. We’ll have an exercise in this first lesson. Practice is the key to learning any new skill, and good communication is just another skill. Our exercises will be based around hypothetical conflicts and/or based on experiences my friends or myself have had. I’m using these examples because I find they relate most to what many women experience or they worked fantastically for me. If your issue appears here, feel reassured that you are not the only woman to have faced that situation. You’re not alone, and you can learn to navigate these turbulent waters as well as anyone else.
Assertiveness Exercise One: No.
Go with me on this journey: You haven’t had a day off in two weeks. You need to wash your hair desperately. Your spouse figure is working and away, you have your niece/grandkids/kids/dog/whatever running around the house like nuts. The place is a mess. You have to figure out some plan for dinner. You forgot to wash the shirt you need for work. Life is not ideal at the moment. You walk outside to fuss with your car/bike, which has a flat tire. Across the street you see your neighbor, whom you only know in passing. She is stretched out in a hammock, sipping strawberry lemonade, alone and peaceful with an aura of relaxed light and choirs humming in the background. She waves, and motions for you to come over. Her fingers, slightly smudged from the bonbons she was eating, point out her car parked in the driveway. She says, “Hey, do you mind cleaning my car for me?” What do you say?
While many of us might knock her on her bonbon eating ass and cry out of sheer frustration, which could be valid, I use this extreme image to create a safe, healthy, and clearly unreal time for you to say no. This is not going to happen (in all likihood) to many of us, and since it’s not real, it’s easy to use for this. Let’s use this example to say no. No, you do not want to clean out your neighbor’s car. There is no reason for you to clean out your neighbor’s car. She is clearly capable, has free time, and the ability to clean her own damn car. No. You would say no.
Saying no is hard, but I find it hard for women for specific reasons. We’re groomed to be accommodating and helpful, as far as being created as a helpmate for Adam even. Helpers do not say no. Help can be equated to working for someone, and you certainly are not going to tell your boss no when they ask for something. Teachers do not ask if you’d like homework, so why would you say no to them? Parents normally don’t take an opinion poll before assigning chores or what have you, so less opportunities to practice saying no there. Those unfortunate women who’ve been pressured into sex may have said no, and may have even been respected and heard, but may also have been run over with the rape machine. Saying no does not normally result in positive experiences for women, if you’ll forgive me for generalizing. In that light, it makes perfect sense that we, as women, do not have a practiced repartee saying no to situations or people. If you can’t say no, you can’t be free. Without freedom, it will be very hard to communicate.
Try this next time you’re presented with a scenario where you’d like to say no: picture you’re hypothetical bonbon eating neighbor asking you to clean her car. What would you say to her? No.
The PTA asks you to bake 3 dozen cupcakes (for the third time this year) for the bake sale. You really don’t have the time and/or desire, and there are 25 other parents in the class, let alone the other parents in the school. Say it with me: no.
Your roommate asks you to do the dishes yet again, even though you cleaned the bathroom and dishes was her only household chore this week. You’re allowed to say no.
A man hits on you and asks for your phone number. You are not remotely interested. A perfect time to say no.
Your best friend invites you out to a movie, but you’d really rather veg at home. No, but thanks anyway.
Your brother wants to know if you can watch his dog for a week. You just had your carpets cleaned. No, but maybe next time.
These and countless other situations are going to come up in your day-to-day life. Part of communicating in an open and honest manner is to say no sometimes. You don’t have to be rude or yell no in someone’s face, but you are within your rights as a person to say no if you don’t want to do something.
This was very difficult for me to learn when I started healing. I was what one therapist called “a people-pleaser.” I would rather have been inconvenienced than have someone else be inconvenienced. But why was my time and desire so much less valuable than someone else? Why did my day off matter so much less than another person’s day off? The reality is that my time, money, space, and whatever other resource someone was trying to tap into is just as valuable as anyone else. I just did not have that perspective. I saw myself as somehow less important. I was wrong. No one person’s time or resources is more sacred than another person’s time or resources. Learning to say no is a way to respect your time, your resources, and yourself.
3. If it looks like a duck…
It might seem like we have now traveled from open, honest communication skills to self-esteem skills. Good eye, dear reader. Self-esteem is in fact part of open, honest communication. Without valuing yourself, your ideas, your needs and wants, you won’t have a reason to communicate in an open, honest way. Learning self-esteem is a lot like learning to communicate well: it is a skill, anyone can learn it, and women somehow do not get the crash course one would assume all people should have. These assertiveness ideas and tricks will be paired with self-esteem basics.
Let me again say that I am not a trained professional in this field. However, for many years I had such a low vision of myself that I knew suicide would be better for anyone who’d had the misfortune of meeting me. After many years of hard work, books read, and thousands of dollars spent on therapy and training classes, I can proudly say I am one of my favorite people. So I do have experience in this field, but not professional or formally trained experience.
Self-Esteem Exercise One: Affirmations.
Affirmations are simple, positive statements that serve as mantras to help you build confidence in the truths that surround you. The key to affirmations is to trust that they are true. I’ve created a small handful of affirmations that I can promise are true if you meet the following requirements: you are a living person, you have consciousness, you need water to maintain life, and/or you breathe oxygen. If any of the following applies to you, then trust me, these are true for you.
· I am a worthy person.
· I deserve to be respected.
· My thoughts, ideas, feelings and opinions are valid.
· I have things to contribute that no one but me can bring to the table.
· I can learn anything with work and effort.
· I am my own greatest ally.
· I have permission to say no to others.
· I have permission to take care of myself first.
· Without taking care of myself, I cannot take care of others to the best of my abilities.
· I do not have to save the world.
· It is not my job to make other people happy.
· I have to right to speak up.
Affirmations can be used in many ways. There is no right or wrong way to use them. Here are a few suggestions, but trust yourself and your creativity. You may have a great idea on how you need to use them, and that may work best for you. Trust that instinct. Try different ways and see which works best at different times. One method may be great alone in the morning, while another may be perfect when you’re in a crowded elevator. Maybe one idea works at work, and another is good for home life. The only expert about what will work best for you is you.
· Write the affirmation on a post-it and put it on your computer monitor.
· Stitch it into a pillow for your room.
· Get bath paint or crayons (any kid’s store will sell this) and write the affirmation on your shower wall.
· Record an MP3 of your favorite affirmations and play it in your car.
· Make a screen saver with one or two that comes up at work.
· Write it as your email signature.
· Use it as a text message to your friends.
· Set an event in your calendar for three weeks from now with an affirmation. Repeat for the next year.
· Paint it on a giant piece on construction paper and hang it on your fridge.
· Learn to write the affirmation in another language, and translate it every week.
· Write it on your bedroom mirror in dry-erase pen.
· Send yourself a card with your affirmation written inside, all in capital letters.
· Make a collage of what your favorite affirmation means to you in pictures.
· Write it on a wallet-size note card, and put it next to your debit/credit card.
· Leave notes in books you haven’t started yet with your affirmations.
· Write affirmations on slips of paper in a coffee can/bottle/whatever, and pull one out every week.
· Post date a hallmark e-card to yourself with your affirmation.
· Ask a friend to call your voicemail and repeat one on your voicemail.
There are literally hundreds on ways you can use affirmations to help cement the ideas of self-esteem into your mind. The key is really trust in the affirmation itself. These are true statements that will help you value yourself. The catch I used to meet when I started self-esteem work was that I felt I was lying to myself. I would say that I was worthy-for example-but I did not believe it. Over time I felt that maybe logically I was worthy, but not actually. Then I moved on to being worthy sometimes. Later I figured that at least my therapist (or best friend, or aunt, or cat) thought I was worthy, so I must be at least partly worthy. Now I do believe I am worthy, but there are days when I wonder if I am as worthy as other people. That’s after seven years of intense, daily work. The point being this is not an overnight process. It takes a long, long, long, long, LONG time to come to trust these ideas. But they are worth trusting, and they are true. You are not lying to yourself when you repeat and own these statements.
Think of it this way: it has taken (insert your age here-for me, 24) years for me to learn that I was unworthy. It is understandably going to take some time to re-learn the reality of things. It has taken serious, maybe horrific, maybe life-altering experiences to confirm my negative belief about myself. It will clearly take a good amount of work to undo those big milestones of false belief.
This is good work, and work worth doing. It’s also difficult and painful. I’m not gonna lie-there will be days when you wonder if it’s worth the effort. Let me assure you that it is worth the effort-whatever the effort is that it takes-and worth more than that. Just trust me on this one.
4. Stay Tuned
That’s all for lesson one! To recap:
· Good communication is a skill that anyone can learn.
· Communication is a spectrum, and all forms are valid at some point or situation.
· Saying “no” is ok, is your right, and is a skill you can learn.
· Self-esteem is connected to healthy communication.
· Self-esteem is a skill that anyone can learn.
· Affirmations are motto-type statements that can be used to help establish yourself in healthy self-talk.
· This is a process that takes time.
I hope that this has been something worthwhile for you, and something that will help you start to communicate in a more useful way for your life. Being able to communicate will help make your relationships function better, will give you more freedom at work and at home, and will make you feel stronger and more capable. It is something that you can learn and work on, and you’re already started!
If there are any questions, comment, traumas, please feel free to email me at any time. I’d be happy to go into further details, help you create some personalize affirmations, or use more examples from the minor experience I have. I’ll be working on 101.2 soon, so stay tuned for more Assertiveness Training!