I want to share with you a recent victory I had over the fear of being assertive with strangers, and why it's so significant for me. A few days ago I was sitting on a bench seat in a popular park down by the beach near where I live, reading a book written by my father about his early life. After a few minutes another man walked up and asked “Do you mind if I sit here?”, gesturing to the other end of the seat.
“No, that's fine”, I smiled and said before returning to my book.
The beach in question is a popular tourist destination and attracts a lot of backpackers from all around the world. This guy looked like he might be one, and appeared to be by himself. While reading my book I started to feel a little guilty for ignoring him, as I imagined him being a lonely backpacker in a foreign land seeking someone to talk to.
In reality I wasn't “ignoring him”; I was just reading my book which is what I wanted to do. But my old caretaker conditioning of putting other people's needs before my own was kicking in. I reminded myself that most likely he was perfectly capable of looking after himself and that I was free to choose to speak to him or to read my book. I chose to continue reading my book.
A couple of minutes later he lit up a cigarette and since I was downwind from him, I started to smell the cigarette smoke; something I really don't like. I knew this was an opportunity to practise my assertiveness skills so although I felt a little trepidation, I said confidently:
“I don't mind you sitting there, but would you mind not smoking so close to me please?”
This was significant for me because I had spent the first half of my life being conditioned into accepting other people's behavior and putting their needs before my own. As a result, I developed an intense fear of being assertive. In a case like this, there are several potential fears that used to trigger and combine for me:
- The fear of strangers, which I learned from bullies at school
- The fear of conflict, which I learned from my parent's arguments
- The fear of my needs being ignored, which I learned from my childhood religion, family and school system
- The fear of being berated or belittled for my preferences and requests, which I learned from my critical mother
- The fear of punishment for standing up for myself, which I learned from my controlling mother and from a school system hell-bent on conditioning boys into submission
- The fear of abandonment, which I learned from my mother and from school teachers who used exclusion as a form of punishment
With all those things at stake, no wonder I used to feel so anxious being assertive with strangers!
You may notice though that all these fears are learned; and through therapy they can also be unlearned. I've done a lot of work on all these fears over the past few years, so this time around I was able to state my request quite confidently.
“I'm sorry! Sure”, the man replied as he stood up and walked a little distance away from me to finish his cigarette.
“Well, that wasn't so bad”, I thought to myself.
I got what I wanted. Gotta love being assertive.
There was just one lingering fear I felt afterwards, which was the fear of abandonment or some other form of punishment. I grew up in a family where people got punished severely for standing up to our controlling mother, and with little forgiveness on offer the repercussions could last for years.
I went back to reading my book, reminding myself that I didn't need this guy to be my friend. What I really wanted right then was to read more about my father now that the cigarette smoke problem was solved.
After finishing his cigarette, the man returned to sit on the bench as I kept on reading. We were surrounded by backpackers and locals sitting on beach towels and picnic rugs partying and enjoying the warm spring weather. It was a fairly distracting environment to read a book, but I had chosen to sit there because I enjoyed the ambiance of everyone around me having such a good time.
A few minutes later the man lent over and spoke to me, asking “Are you a local?”
I felt I'd read enough for the time being, and was happy to have a brief chat before heading off to yoga. “Yes”, I replied, “I live just up around the corner, not far from the beach. How about you?”
We got into a guessing game about where he was from, and it turned out he was indeed a backpacker from another country, here by himself. He was happy to talk with me and clearly hadn't taken any offence at my request that he not smoke near me. I enjoyed talking to him for about 10 minutes before it was time to leave to get to my yoga class.
All in all, it was a win for me.
Assertiveness is the key to getting what you want in life, and to making sure you avoid getting what you don't want. Other people will often wait for us to be assertive before making our needs their priority; which isn't surprising when you consider that everyone is primarily interested in getting their own needs met.
If you've had the assertiveness conditioned out of you, or you feel fear around being assertive, the solution is to process those fears in therapy, and practice assertiveness in the real world. If the fear is really bad for you, consider breaking down into it's components and dealing with each of them in turn so that you don't end up overwhelmed when being assertive.
I've found one-on-one therapy and coaching tremendously valuable for learning how to be assertive in the real world. If that's been a challenge for you and is something you'd like to work on, drop me a line about how I could help you release your fears and learn to be assertive via Skype.