We are often told we need to be assertive.  Assertive, but not aggressive.  And that can be a tall order for many of us, especially those of us that learned to make our way through life as the pleaser/appeaser.  For those of us that fall or have fallen at some point into this category (myself included) when we try to make a conscious shift, we may find ourselves over correcting and drawing a much harder line than we intended.  Imagine a pendulum swinging all the way from the left to the right.  We feel guilty about it, and may find ourselves going back and forth in our heads thinking – “Did that come across as rude?  “Did I overdo it?”  “Do I need to apologize?”  Maybe we do end up apologizing, maybe we’re not sure, but things are awkward.  This assertiveness thing is too hard, too sticky.  And maybe we’re better off just doing what we do best – going along to get along.

Or maybe the shift is an unconscious one and perhaps the resentment we have shoved down for so long finally boils to the surface and we blow our top like a fiery volcano. 

This explosion becomes another mess we need to clean up and we find ourselves full of shame, guilt, we over apologize, maybe we beat ourselves up about it and punish ourselves and we double down on trying to be the pleaser, because good people don’t do things like this, right?  If I was a better person, I would have been able to keep my cool and wouldn’t have reacted that way, right?

In my opinion, assertiveness is one of the hardest things to get right, mainly because we have so much baggage around it.  When I really started looking at the roots of this for myself, I had to go deep. 

Find the root cause

If you’ve never met me in person, outside of the virtual world of zoom, there is something about me you will notice instantly.  No, not my dazzling smile or my bright blue eyes, as lovely as they may be.  I’m 6 foot 1.  If I were male, you probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid.  But even though humans are getting taller and taller these days due to better nutrition and living standards, 6 foot 1 for a woman is still really tall.  And I didn’t shoot up like a weed later in life.  I’ve always been tall.  All my baby records were off the charts.  I was always in the top 1% of height for my age, since about birth.

So you can imagine that when I started elementary school I definitely stood out in the room, pun completely intended.  And I bet you can guess what happened.  I got teased.  Bullied is the word we would probably use now.  And it was relentless.  It was every day, so much so that in the mornings I’d be nauseous and never want to go to school, because I knew what awaited me there.  What did I do?  Fighting wasn’t my bag, and I took the path of least resistance.  I tried to make myself invisible.  I slouched, not that it really worked, no matter what I did people still noticed me.  But I learned something as a young child that followed me into adulthood.  I learned that it was important to fit in.  I learned to please to get love.  I had to, right?  I was a child, and this was all about survival. 

The past will follow us into the present

Even though my circumstances are quite different than many of you, you may have learned this lesson too.  Maybe you were raised by strict parents and the mantra at home was “Children should be seen and not heard,” and therefore the behavior of appeasement became ingrained.  Maybe you grew up in a chaotic home, an unstable environment, and you never knew what was coming next, and pleasing was your way of coping with the chaos. 

It’s worth looking at these things.  The past will follow us into the present if we’re not careful because it lives deep in our mindsets, and it shows up in our capacity to set healthy boundaries and respect ourselves.  I hear from women especially all the time that are burned out, that are at their breaking points, and the solution lies not in finding a different job (although that may be helpful depending on the context) but rather in shifting the perspective we have around ourselves and where our sense of validation comes from. 

Old assertivess rules, new assertiveness rules

This is on my mind because this week I was facilitating a class on assertiveness at UT here in Austin.  I had participants complete an exercise I call Old Rules, New Rules, and I want to share it with you.  Draw a line down a page and write down all the old, inherited rules you have about assertiveness on the left-hand side and title it Old Rules.  It could say things like:

“If I assert myself, no one will like me.”

“If I’m not demanding, no one will respect me.”

“I have to give in to keep the peace.”

“If I make one person unhappy, that will make someone else unhappy.”

In the right-hand column, spend some time thinking about what you want the new rule to be, write New Rules at the top of the column and really think hard.  It’s not something that just resonates with your head.  It needs to also resonate with your heart:

“I am worthy and deserve to have my needs met.”

“I can express my needs clearly without disrespecting others.”

“Conflict isn’t always harmful and can lead to productive solutions.”

“I am not responsible for other peoples’ happiness.”

That last one was a game changer for me, particularly, “I’m not responsible for other peoples’ learning.”  At some point in my practice, I almost gave up facilitation.  It was too stressful; it was too hard.  I couldn’t make all the participants happy and out of 25 perfect scores, I’d focus on the 26th person who didn’t like the training.  But here is what I have learned over time – I’m responsible for showing up with energy, being prepared and holding the space for learners to learn.  The learner is responsible for the learning.  The learner is responsible for doing the hard work.  I’m incredibly comfortable now letting folks sit in their shi#.  And the really beautiful prize that I’ve gained is the sheer joy of just showing up, doing my best, and allowing whatever happens to happen. I’ve found a joy in teaching that I never thought was possible.  Because when we’ve really looked at the past and shifted our perspective, it’s freedom that is on the other side.

Coaching questions for thought

  • What is my assertiveness story?  What events in my past have pushed me to hold a limiting perspective?
  • What are my old rules around assertiveness?  What are these rules costing me?
  • What do I want my new rules to be?  If I could embrace this new frame, how would I feel?  What would I do differently?  What would be the benefit?  Where in my life would I feel more free?

Shelley Pernot is a career and leadership coach who is passionate about helping her clients develop clarity, confidence, and compassion for self.  She is particularly adept at working with high performing women who are hard on themselves.  Reach out to me here for a free consultation to learn more about the coaching process and how it may benefit you!