Recently, I have had several clients who reported lack of assertiveness as one of their main difficulties. They discussed interactions with friends, family members, or colleagues in which they prioritize others’ needs at the expense of their own. Many say that their inability to be assertive is motivated by the desire to please everyone, to avoid hurting others’ feelings, or to avoid being judged negatively as a result of prioritizing their own needs. In turn, they bend over backwards to meet everyone’s expectations, judge themselves negatively when they fall short, and experience unhealthy negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, and guilt. I am the first to agree that being considerate is a respectable trait, one that is often encouraged in our society. However, demanding that one must always please everyone is not just an impossible endeavor, this irrational belief may interfere with the ultimate goal of maintaining a good relationship if it leads to anger and resentment.
So, what are some strategies to act more assertively? One way is to recognize that aiming to please everyone is unattainable, simply because there are not enough hours in the day, people have different and fluctuating expectations, people may have opposing expectations, and meeting their expectations does not always pleases someone. Thus, the rigid demands that one must please everyone is plainly setting one up to fail and contributes to anger, anxiety, or guilt. Secondly, why must everyone else’s wishes trump your own? Where is the rule written and why does it only apply to one person? Thirdly, telling yourself that you cannot stand hurting someone’s feelings or disappointment is not factually true and only contributes to unassertive behaviors. I have yet to meet a person whose behaviors have not been disappointing to someone else, or has not done something that is hurtful to another person. If that is the case, then everyone I have come across has tolerated being disappointing or hurtful at some point and managed to tolerate it. So, perhaps adopting these more Rational Beliefs will help to reduce anger, guilt, and anxiety; further, it will help to improve the relationships you treasure.
Next Up: Mike Toohey, M.A. on Keeping the B in REBT