Assertiveness – Why its hard and some strategies

Assertiveness, limits, boundaries. All incredibly useful strategies for navigating life and staying safe from predatory people. In my own experience, I was almost completely unable to set any kind of boundary or limit until I was about forty.

Here’s one of many examples of when I could have used assertiveness but didn’t.

Between ages 28 to 32 I lived in public housing. I was aspirational – going to university and hoping to be able to move to somewhere nice and less dingy. My neighbours tended not to be aspirational – most of them were alcoholics. Being an Aspie social chameleon I was keen to be accepted by everyone so I learned how to fit in. My housing situation was all fairly grim but there was one factor which made it almost impossible – we shall call this factor Renee (*name changed). Renee was a rather sad and broken person but I struggled to sympathise because Renee was a stalker and worse still she was MY stalker. Renee had wanted to be my partner since I moved in. She would get drunk and aggressive and accuse me of things I hadn’t done. She would sometimes try to force herself on me sexually. She told me all my faults and then sang my praises, depending on her mood. I felt trapped by Renee. I understood that most people in this situation would set some firm boundaries but at that point in my life boundaries were as remote as Mars. I know they existed but could not reach them. Very occasionally – usually after she had been violent to me or a friend – I would tell Renee to leave and not come back. She knew me well as she would wait for a week and then knock on my door looking contrite and sad. I would ‘forgive’ her and let her back in and the whole thing would begin again. I spent almost four years haunted by Renee and when I finally escaped my supported housing flat I was haunted by thoughts of her for another three years after that.

This is one of a litany of my experiences where assertiveness and boundaries would have really helped and where I simply couldn’t apply them. I am not alone here sadly. I know a load of people who struggle with setting boundaries and enforcing them. Assertiveness is a useful but very elusive skill for so many people.

Autistic people often struggle with assertiveness, as do many other groups and individuals. I will just focus on Autistic people and assertiveness here but I imagine the things relevant to those of us on the spectrum are probably relevant to others too,

Some of the reasons I think assertiveness is so hard for Autistics  include:

  • We often struggle to be accepted socially from a very early age, This can set us up to be strongly focussed on pleasing others and gaining friends. That can work well up until the point we need to set a limit or boundary. When this occurs I think many of us feel that our friend will disown us or not like us any more. So we go along in the friendship or relationship not speaking up the something goes wrong. Usually this is interpreted by the friend or partner that we agree with their actions – otherwise why wouldn’t we say something?
  • Many Autistic people – and others too – have experienced bullying, abuse, violence, gaslighting and other invalidating and harmful behaviour from others. This impacts on a person’s sense of self, identity and self-worth. They may not even realise they have a right to stand up for themselves or if they do, they are afraid expecting further abuse. Often even if the initial abuse happened many years ago it may still be almost impossible for someone to stick up for themselves.
  • Some people have spent a lot of time in supported housing or residential care  or psychiatric hospitals and institutions. The way these sorts of settings work is to ensure everyone does what is expected of them. There is often a very clear power dynamic going on in these settings. People in these places are generally expected to do what they are told and not ‘rock the boat’. This can make it almost impossible to set limits and boundaries, even if someone has been living outside of these settings for many years. It also raises a strong danger of abuse within the institutional settings.

Thankfully learning assertiveness does not need to be an insurmountable goal. There are a few things you can do to improve it. These include:

  • Self worth. We often have low self esteem and self worth which can contribute to a lack of assertiveness. Consciously working on building your self worth is a good first step.There are things you can do to build your self worth, including being aware of how you describe and talk about yourself to others. If there are lots of blaming words and thoughts, try and consciously change how you view and talk about yourself. You can also do things like writing one positive thing about yourself each day and, if possible, spend time with people who value and respect you.
  • Practice makes perfect. I find when improving my own assertiveness, it was quite an incremental process. I didn’t start by standing up to a bully, I started by standing up to tradespeople and telemarketers. Each time I did this I grew in confidence and my resolve to be assertive in the future grew too. I can now set limits and be assertive in a number of situations and it is wonderful. I thought I would never achieve this.
  • Some people find working on assertiveness with a psychologist or other mental health worker is helpful.
  • There are a few simple tricks around practicing assertiveness which if you use them will hopefully make the experience a positive one which you can build on. These are:
    • Before the conversation, make sure you are aware of things which might be going on for the person you wish to set a boundary and / or be assertive with. If they are catering for a child’s birthday party and have 35 six year-olds coming over in less than two hours, it’s probably not going to be a time they are receptive to you setting a limit.
    • Not only pick your time, but pick the way you have the conversation, taking into account your own needs and the other person’s preferences. If you dislike phone conversations, using the phone  might increase your anxiety so it might be worth meeting face-to-face or via email. And if the person you wish to set the limit with doesn’t respond well to email – or whatever – maybe don’t use that medium.
    • You can run through what the issue is and what you want to say to a friend, partner or family member, preferably one who is not involved in whatever the problem situation is themselves.
    • Use ‘I’ statements. Start from the position of ‘owning’ your concern rather than saying ‘when you did this thing it upset me…’
    • Don’t blame the other person. Set out what they are doing which is causing you difficulty as objectively as possible.
    • Describe the outcome you would like and if possible ways you and the person you are speaking with might be able to get to that point,
    • Remember that people who like and respect you tend to respond well to an assertive, respectful conversation.
    • Allow yourself time to debrief after the conversation, either just by yourself or with a friend, partner family member or talking to your pet.


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