Sticking Up for Yourself — Without Pissing Anyone Off

Are assertiveness trainings doing a good job if women go away from them thinking they have to set boundaries while still centring others’ feelings? Unpopular opinion: Sometimes women should really only centre ourselves.

CONTENT NOTE: This piece includes swearing.

Little girls are taught deferential communication styles to varying degrees across many cultures. Those styles have their place, but unfortunately I think a lot of us also learned “be nice to people at your own expense” and “consider other people’s feelings more than your own.” Girls are asked to manage their tone in a way that boys aren’t. Toddler girls get asked to surrender toys to boys when they squabble. Girls get in trouble for getting mad, for saying no, for not managing other peoples’ behaviour. Eventually many of us internalize the belief that our needs are less important than the needs of others, particularly boys’ and men’s needs. Deferential communication style, then, is often not just a strategy; it’s a reflection of beat-up self-worth.

So here comes the Assertive Training to teach women how to stand up for themselves!

I really think assertiveness trainings are a bit “meh.”

I attend them and I run them; people are often helped by it; I am ambivalent.

Maybe the teachers are teaching it wrong, but over the years, I’ve noticed that a lot of women learners seem to integrate assertiveness training into this pre-existing belief system. For these women, assertiveness just becomes a new obligation in this social context where women are made responsible for others’ feelings. As a result, they use the assertive communication strategies they learned, but they continue to worry about the other person more than themselves. It’s passivity still, but placed inside communication formulas:
“I feel ____ when you _____.” Where we previously may not have said “no” at all, now we sweat over a gentle way to say “no” that won’t piss anyone off. And our self worth still suffers.

So many women in my life agonize over their difficult conversations, dissecting them to figure out what they did wrong. A card-carrying feminist and leadership educator, I have done it myself. I have thought, “Oh shit! I forgot to say ‘I feel’ before I asked for what I needed!” or “I said ‘I feel,’ but I didn’t follow it with an actual feeling word!” I blamed myself, my imperfect communication, for the undesired outcomes of my difficult conversations. But for all the imperfections in my approaches, I had made my needs clear. Why do I have to twist my wording around into an A+ boundary statement to get someone to care about and respect me?

I am by no means saying that we shouldn’t consider other peoples’ feelings when having difficult conversations or setting boundaries. There are lots of reasons to do so, especially if we are trying to maintain or deepen relationships, to respond to hurt people presenting quick fight/flight responses, to set a model of kindness, or to “be the bigger person.” When in a power position — perhaps a teacher, boss, or social worker — then you have a higher obligation to use non-confrontational techniques.

I am saying that we’re doing gentle assertiveness even when that’s not what’s called for, and even at our own expense.

Here’s an example. A friend of mine talked to a guy on a dating app. She went on one date, and declined a second date. The dude texted, “Okay, but can I ask you a personal question?” She tentatively agreed, and he asked her a way-over-the-line question about her sex life. It basically boiled down to, “I bet you could get it.” (Imagine a sleazy wink and a tongue sticking out.) She responded with a diplomatic answer, encouraging him to examine his preconceived notions about women. Predictably, he responded with, “Fuck you! I am not sexist!”

She checked in with a group of girlfriends, sharing screenshots of the texts. Initially, I got the impression that she was proud of her response. A couple minutes later, though, the gender socialization seemed to kick in. Understandably, she wanted to know how she could have avoided his angry response. She started writing anxious texts — “Was I out of line?” and “I used language that causes defensiveness in men” and “Maybe I should have just said…”

It was like my friend quickly forgot how violated and shocked she felt, and started worrying about his feelings instead. I felt a surge of anger that the man would first insult her with the question and then make her feel as though her boundary was too strong. I replied, “Yes, that reaction would be fine. What you did was fine. Not responding at all would be fine. Saying, ‘Oh fuck off’ would be fine. Saying, ‘I am not giving you free material for your wank bank’ would have been fine.”

WE DON’T HAVE TO BE POLITE TO PEOPLE WHO ARE PURPOSELY RUDE!

He knew what he was doing. He knew it wasn’t appropriate. There are certain situations where we don’t owe anyone anything, especially if we don’t know them, and especially if they are disrespecting us. In this scenario, passive-aggression, passivity and aggression would all have been acceptable. There’s almost no response that could have out-assholed this guy, and likely no response that would have been more effective than another.

Why, after learning ostensibly how to stand up for ourselves, do we still think we have to be unfailingly polite? Why have the assertiveness trainings failed to help us understand that assertiveness can include direct, rather brutal boundary statements? Like, “No, I am not doing that.” Like, “Get your goddamn hands off me.” Like a text that simply says, “Blocked.” Why do we think there is only one good communication strategy? Why do we feel we have to engage at all?

There’s a communication style model I’ve seen out there that defines assertiveness as “I win/you win,” aggressiveness as, “I win, you lose,” passiveness as, “I lose, you win” and passive-aggressiveness as, “we both lose.” Another frames assertiveness as communication where “both are protected.” A learner could be forgiven for thinking assertiveness should be the go-to approach in any difficult conversation.

I don’t think it’s true that both people “win” in assertive communication, and I don’t think it should always be the goal. Assertiveness is often about ensuring that our own needs are met, regardless of what the other person wants. If “both win” just means “both feel safe in the conversation,” is that clear to learners? Are we imagining that the other person is being assertive too? Are we suggesting that assertiveness is the correct communication style even when the other person in the scenario is being passive or aggressive? Is gentle assertiveness supposed to be the trump card for any communication style?

I teach students that even aggression is sometimes the appropriate option. I give the example, “Imagine a stranger blocks your path and makes a pervy comment about your breasts. You’re not going to say, ‘Please sir, I feel uncomfortable when you talk about my titties.’ No!” I tell them, “Raising your tone and telling him to get away from you is probably the best course. But yelling and/or punching would be appropriate; scurrying away may be the safest option.” Even passive-aggression, while likely the least useful style, achieves something in this kind of power play. Perhaps just the satisfaction of a sarcastic comeback; maybe the seconds in which you can get some distance while the catcaller figures out your meaning. The catcaller’s feelings are only important only because how you handle them may affect your own safety.

Shifting social dynamics where women aren’t held responsible for others’ feelings is a big task. But we can control whether our communication with others emerges from a place of self worth. When doing so, we will see that assertiveness is not always the only option.

Here are some questions I think we should be asking ourselves when we are considering whether to or how to address shitty behaviour.

  • Can I reasonably assume this person understands they are trespassing on social norms or the boundaries I have set with them?
  • How do I actually feel about this?
  • Is this person going to be considering my feelings as much as I am concerned about theirs?
  • What do I have the capacity for?
  • What do I want to get out of asserting myself? What results do I anticipate?
  • Is my response for me or for them?
  • What are the risks? E.g., in relation to stereotype threat
  • Do I owe this person anything?
  • What is my power and privilege in relation to this person?
  • What’s more important, how I stand up for myself, or simply standing up for myself?
  • What’s more important? Sticking up for myself, or protecting my life, relationship, job or safety?

With these questions in mind, we may be able to land on an effective communication strategy that affirms our self-worth. To stick up for ourselves, we might have to piss someone off.

Audrey is an educator, counsellor, and curriculum developer running her own business in Toronto. She writes about social services, mostly. audreybatterham.com.

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