Stand Up For Yourself

You too can be assertive.

Posted Feb 29, 2016

J. Krueger
Full steam ahead
Source: J. Krueger

If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? ~ Rabbi Hillel; Pirke Avot

A long time ago, in a land far away, I shared a hospital room with a man who was troubled by obsessive aggressive impulses. His wife and taken a lover and he followed them around with a knife in his pocket. He recognized this as a psychological problem and came in for help. He and I got along fine. I thought he was an intelligent and polite person, but there was a lack of spontaneity and happiness, which was surely part of his problem. I was never afraid of him (even though my own problem was on the anxiety spectrum). I felt that his penchant for aggression was contextually specific. He never asked me for anything, except one day. He quietly announced that he had run out of clean underwear and asked me if he could borrow a couple of briefs. I knew the answer had to be ‘no.’ This was an unreasonable request; it invaded my privacy, and there was no social norm or expectation that I should comply. Under different circumstances, this would have been a good joke. A simple ‘No, I am sorry, but I cannot do that’ should have settled the issue.

I agonized over my response, and this agony was the calling card of unassertiveness. There was a lot of self-talk. ‘Did I not have an obligation to help? What was the big deal? The underwear would be laundered. There really was no issue.’ I could not simply accept and stand by my inner certainty that this was something I did not want to do, did not have to do, and should not even be asked to do. I do not recall how long it took to deliver my decision, but when I did, the sky did not fall. My roommate calmly accepted my decision. This was a relief, but the main relief was finally being able to say ‘no’ firmly, politely, and without a residue of self-doubt. I felt that an important step had been taken.

This slightly off-beat story illustrates one of two major themes in assertiveness-affording situations: to decline an unreasonable request. The other theme is to ask for what is rightfully yours, but which you have been denied. Saying ‘no’ to others and requesting a ‘yes’ from others are two sides of the same assertiveness coin. The psychological situations, however, come with a critical difference. The ‘no’ scenario is reactive. The other party has defined the situation for you. All you need to do is consult your feelings (and social norms, within reason) and respond. An assertive person does not provide elaborate justifications for a ‘no,’ because that would convey uncertainty and perhaps guilt. If the feelings are clear and there is no evident breach of social custom a ‘no, because this is how I feel,’ is enough. In contrast, the ‘yes’ scenario is proactive. Its advantage is that you can choose the time, the place, and the words to register your request (or demand, complaint, grievance). An assertive person does not wait too long, chooses a private setting over a public one, speaks calmly and firmly, and is prepared for questions, challenges, and follow-ups. To do this right is a skill, and like other skills, it can be learned and perfected. Bower and Bower (1991) recommend a DESC protocol, where D stands for ‘Description,’ E stands for ‘Explanation,’ S stands for ‘Specify,’ and C stands for ‘Consequence.’ Describe what you are asking for, explain why the current situation is bothering you, specify the remedy you seek, and note what will happen if you are not satisfied.

I highly recommend the Bower and Bower book. It offers a clear breakdown of the exercises needed for skill-building. These exercises are not seat-of-the pants inventions, but are grounded in cognitive and behavioral research. There are no quick fixes. It will not do to take a selfie and tell yourself how awesome you are. This is work. However, the rewards are considerable. We like assertive people because they don’t put us on the defensive and because they bring us clarity about what it will take to get along with them.

In this blog I have written a lot about social games of power and dominance. Much as I like this level of analysis, it is limited in what it can tell us about human relationships. Game theory is concerned with our preferences, our reading of the preferences of others, and finding the best response given these preferences. The study of assertiveness opens up a wealth of issues in social behavior and how it unfolds over time. Assertive people act coherently, bringing a whole set of skills to bear. Assertiveness, in other words, is the good Gestalt of social behavior. It may be a start to begin work on one aspect of assertiveness, such as body posture or choice of words, but a holistic conquest of assertiveness ought to be our goal. Just imagine a person who says all the right things with the right tone of voice but is slumped over and picking imaginary lice out of her hair. You would not find this person convincing and you probably would not like her.  

People have many excuses for not developing their assertiveness. They don’t want to invest the effort, and laziness appeals to the id or what may be called the ‘inner pigdog.' Building assertiveness also means to not shy away from confrontation. Confrontation is arousing, and those who’d rather avoid confrontation would not only feel more arousal than those who do not, but also would be more likely to interpret this arousal as fear. Shying away from an opportunity to work on one’s assertiveness yields a short-term negative reinforcement, but steepens the slope to be climbed in the future. Experiencing the specious rewards of effort- and fear-avoidance time and again, the unassertive conclude that shyness and reserve reside in their character. I often see this among my students. I encourage them to stand up be counted, calmly but firmly. 

Bower, S. A., & Bower, G. H. (1991). Asserting yourself: A practical guide for positive change. Reading, MA: Perseus.

Here's a post on what does not work.

And here's Rabbi Marley, commenting on Hillel:
Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up, Don't give up the fight.