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On Being Assertive: Why Is It So Hard For Some to Speak Up?

Speaking up for some people can be extremely difficult, even scary.  This notion may seem foreign to those of us who don’t struggle in this way, and we may not even really buy it.  How could someone actually be afraid to speak up for themselves?  Why wouldn’t they just say what they mean?  Are they that insecure?  It can be tempting to dismiss them and even feel disrespect for them.   After all, it is hard to respect someone who won’t stand up for themselves.  These are the doormats of society, and their struggle is real.  

The above scenario demonstrates some common thoughts that may run through our minds when we first encounter someone who lacks assertiveness.   When we think this way, and we all do it from time to time, we are separating ourselves from the other person.  Instead of being WITH them, we are ABOVE them, judging their behavior as if we really know what it’s about.  With the ABOVE stance, it reinforces the separation in the relationship and protects the person who is standing ABOVE from feeling into the other person’s situation, walking a moment in their shoes. That’s our defense system activating when we encounter something we are not familiar with; our defended brain says, “Yikes, move away, I don’t want that emotion to get on me!”  So we jump to judgement, or going ABOVE.  What would happen if we shifted our stance to one that was softer, more curious?   What might we learn about them if we presented ourselves as being WITH them instead?  We might get a glance of deeper understanding.  

Let’s take for instance a friend who has spent years in an unhealthy relationship but can’t seem to find their way out…and it’s obvious they need too.  They are the “doormat” who gets walked on by their partner on a daily basis.  Everyone knows this, including your friend.  What a hard thing to witness, and you hurt for them.  One way to interact with this friend is to say, “I can’t believe you have stayed with ‘x’ for all these years, and all you do is complain about it.  Why can’t you just hire a divorce attorney and get on with it?”  That kind of statement would be an example of going ABOVE, as you have separated yourself from them and even shamed them, as if you have been personally inconvenienced by their situation.  We all know people who talk this way to their friends in such circumstances.   The result is that “shame” is now added onto your friend’s burden…not intended perhaps but nonetheless true.  What will likely happen is this friend will think twice about opening up next time.  This is a small example of how people learn that to be silent is safer.  

Here is an example of a response that demonstrates being WITH the friend: “You are so strong and know what you need to do.  I have faith you will leave when you are ready, and even if that takes years, it’s OK with me.  I believe that you know what’s best for you and you will do it in a time that’s right for you.  What is the hardest part about this situation for you?  Help me understand more about what you are dealing with at home.”   You may not say that all in one breath but there is a huge difference in those two responses.  One conveys irritation, anger, and separation; the other conveys encouragement, trust, and openness: safety.

If we want to encourage people to speak up, we need to set the stage for safety.  That means that when our friends and loved ones reveal something about themselves, we meet them with understanding, even if we don’t quite understand; we can still say, “I believe you that you feel that way.”  Professional doormats typically have long histories spanning back to childhood of being dominated in some form or fashion and may not have experience with their needs being met or even acknowledged.  For these folks, their own needs frighten them because they were continually met with ABOVE statements.  They become afraid of their own voice, their own needs: they become afraid to assert themselves.  


Lisa K. Wheeler, MA, LPC

Supporting Resiliency in Teens and Adults

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