• Maura McCarley Torkildson

Choosing Assertiveness


I teach assertiveness classes and one of my goals is for people to come away from the class with more choices around taking care of themselves in relationships. Assertiveness is a choice and that includes picking your battles. When we become more assertive and set better boundaries for ourselves, we often experience push back form others. It requires vigilance. Setting boundaries is on-going work. Any change in behavior is going to trigger discomfort in others. One of the things I tell my students is that assertiveness is not a prescription. You are not letting yourself down if you are not assertive all the time.

Assertiveness is a risk and those risks can feel heightened in work environment, especially if you are being assertive with management. It can be scary to assert yourself and at times it may not be wise. But this is also an opportunity for the inner critic to come in and run the show. In order to counter the inner critic, it helps to make an assessment with some questions. Inner critics like to create stories based on a potential negative outcome and blow it way out of proportion.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What are you risking - your job, a relationship, making someone angry or just simply you feeling uncomfortable?

  • Is the risk of speaking up greater than the risk of losing your sense of self-worth because you didn’t speak up? Be aware of the accumulative loss to self-esteem that occurs over time when you constantly give yourself away in the pursuit of safety.

  • Are you silencing yourself because it is a habitual pattern? What are the potential gains of changing old patterns?

  • Are you creating worry stories about what will happen if you assert yourself? How realistic are they?

Here’s an example: I know women afraid of saying no because their inner critics says it will cause them to lose their status as the “go-to” person at work. What are they really risking when they say no? Likely, it is not what their inner critic has to say about it. Rather, what do they lose when they say yes all the time? If they feel walked on, taken advantage of or feel overworked and under-valued, then the loss of self-worth has already occurred. They have created a story around saying “no” which is not realistic, for example “people won’t respect them anymore.” However, the opposite could be true. Ultimately, if they don’t say no, they will become increasingly unhappy; the people around them will feel it and they may eventually lash out unprofessionally.

Here are some tips:

  • Start asserting yourself with the small stuff to build your skill and then you can assess if you want to tackle bigger issues.

  • Begin cultivating a relationship with your inner expert rather than your inner critic. Notice the energy surrounding your self-talk, does it drag you down, make you fearful? Watch for words like should, always, never and other generalizations. Your inner expert will feel affirming and calmer.

  • For more risky situations, find a trusted ally to talk with about the situation. Pick someone who listens rather than advises.

  • Use your breath. There is nothing like a big deep healing breath to calm your nervous system. In situations where immediate response is required, breathe and pause before jumping in.

No one can predict the future. There is no crystal ball that will tell us the actual outcomes. Confronting your fears and moving through them is the only way to move past them. Taking risks is crucial to our development and being assertive is one of those risks.

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