Assertiveness: A work in progress

I was relatively old when I came across the term ‘assertiveness’, about 19 or so. As soon as I understood the concept, I realised that it was not something that I was good at. I have always had difficulties saying ‘no’ and taking people to task for poor behaviour.  I never had much sense of who I was and was very keen that everybody should like me. This was driven in part by experiences of bullying at school but I think may also have been impacted by my family’s curious inability to model or deal with any kind of conflict. In fat, I only saw my parents argue once during my childhood. I was terrified and thought the world would end. My mum told me that when I was little, one of the seemingly endless parade of psychiatrists I saw suggested that my parents should ‘pretend’ to argue.  I don;t recall this ever happening,

As a child not being assertive is bad enough, but when I moved out of home I felt as if I were prey to every scam artist and sleazeball in Australia! And worse still, I was promoted in my job as a fast food operative. I had to manage staff – teenage staff to be precise. A lot of the time I didn’t even try to delegate work to them, I simply did it myself.

When I was a little older,  I found myself with a mental illness diagnosis and a difficult lifestyle. I attended a live-in therapy program which was modelled around Dialectical Behaviour Therapy principles (and here’s a link if you don’t know what that is): –  One of the key skills in this course was assertiveness. I realised that I completely unable to be assertive. I tried but I couldn’t believe that assertiveness was a skill you could learn, like using the internet or riding a bike. I felt that people were either assertive or they weren’t. In my mind, you either had it or you didn’t.

That was fifteen years ago. I have changed my mind a little bit about my capacity to learn assertiveness. I know that I am much better in certain situations, such as in the workplace or when I’m defending the rights of others. When it comes to standing up to family or, for some reason, charities and telemarketers, my assertiveness sills are a little deficient. It has been something I can learn but it has taken a long time and there is still a way to go.

If you are not very assertive, try to be patient with yourself. It takes small steps but it will improve. I think a lot of people on the Autism spectrum struggle with assertiveness. We often catastrophise and worry that if we stand up to someone they will hate us forever, when in fact it could strengthen the relationship. Sometimes it’s a matter of ‘taking the plunge’ with family and friends. We may find it easier to stand up for another person or be assertive in a situation where there are clear boundaries around behaviour, such as the workplace.It is not really a ‘one size fits all’ skill. Keep trying. I am.


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