“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind, don’t matter and those who matter, don’t mind.” – Dr. Suess
Assertiveness means acting from a place of respect – for self and others – and assuming equal value to the needs of self and others. When women think of assertiveness, some of us have many negative associations to overcome. Possible reasons for these blocks: Women have traditionally been expected to defer to men, and have internalized the dominant cultural expectations of females as submissive and powerless.
There is something wrong with the present system of power distribution for all people, which we, as women, may be particularly sensitive to, having so deeply learned to respect the importance of other people’s needs.
To experience assertiveness as woman, we must act on a sense of self worth, value and give voice to our own needs, as well as that of others’. As we develop a sense of assertiveness or empowerment, we begin to discover that a conflict of needs actually can present us with a creative challenge to discover solutions that can empower all parties involved.
Some woman may have learned powerlessness if they were kept in powerless positions repeatedly and/or over long periods of time (possibly during childhood) by those who used external forces (religion, money, physical strength, legal status, and/or military force) to control them. They may have been abused as a child, a partner or spouse, an employer, a soldier, or may have been the victim of racial or ethnic attacks. Such prolonged abuse can cause woman to become afraid to even feel their own needs, i.e., to admit to themselves that they want or need something. They then become immobilized.
Power can be used to destroy or create, to belittle others and over-inflate the self, or to belittle the self and over-inflate others. Assertiveness can be seen as the use of power to enhance and respect both self and others. Assertiveness training, then, can be a way for women to reclaim their rights to power and effectiveness in the world without doing so at the expense of others.
An abused child may grow up to feel permanently powerless as an adult, even though his/her parents no longer have physical or economic power over him/her. One may then enter into a situation that repeats childhood experiences (e.g., living with or marrying an abusive partner), and therefore keeping oneself in externally imposed danger. Or one may keep oneself down through self-abuse, compulsive behaviors, and/or depression…because the powerlessness has become internalized.
Overcoming Powerlessness –
The first step to overcoming powerlessness is to learn to feel entitled to your personal rights. You have the right to live a life free from physical, emotional, sexual, and financial mistreatment. You have the right to be treated with respect, to earn a livable income, to be informed of matters that affect you, and to express yourself freely (without harming others), and your wishes and preferences be seriously considered. You have the right to ask for what you need (even though you may be turned down) and to fight for what you need and want (even if you are turned down!). Most people who have learned powerlessness barely feel entitled to speak, let alone to speak freely. Often professional psychotherapy is necessary to overcome the ingrained patterns. Never the less, to overcome learned powerlessness, you must gradually, haltingly, but persistently lay claim to each and every human right, one after the other.
Now that you have decided it is important for you to learn to be more assertive you will need to identify the areas in which you would like to be more assertive. Think about situations that you currently find difficult. In what kinds of situations would you like to be more assertive? Phrase these goals in a positive way. For example, instead of saying “I don’t want to give in to my boyfriend and stay home every Friday night” you could rephrase this goal as, “I would like to go out with my boyfriend every (say) second Friday night but will go out without him if he refuses”. It is always best to start with the easiest goals first. Therefore, write your goals on a piece of paper, order them from easiest to hardest, then write them into the spaces below.
If you have difficulty putting these goals into action, ask your therapist for information about goal planning techniques. The following list of personal rights is relevant to you and to everyone else. Practice repeating your personal rights, especially those rights that seem hardest to accept.
– I have the right to be the judge of what I do and what I think.
– I have the right to offer no reasons and excuses for my behavior.
– I have the right to refuse to be responsible for finding solutions to other people’s problems.
– I have the right to change my mind.
– I have the right to make mistakes.
– I have the right to say “I don’t know”.
– I have the right to make my own decisions.
– I have the right to say “I don’t understand”.
– I have the right to say “I don’t care”.
– I have the right to say “no” – without feeling guilty.
For each of your goals, think about how you can assert yourself most effectively. Practice useful responses or assertive statements until they feel more natural. You cannot expect to become assertive overnight. It will take time and practice to learn these new skills and to apply them consistently. It will also take time for your family and friends to adjust to your new behavior. If you are usually aggressive, people will probably be pleased with your new behavior. On the other hand, if you are normally quite passive some people may feel threatened when you start to assert yourself. Remember though that this fear is their problem, not yours. You are simply reclaiming your assertive rights. Give yourself time and make any changes gradually. As your assertive behavior starts to feel more natural you should begin to feel more confident and happy with yourself.