There are four specific toxic beliefs that undermine your ability to be assertive. They are: (1) the belief that you live only to please and serve others, (2) the belief that you’re unworthy of love as you are, (3) the belief that asserting yourself means you’re a bad person, and (4) the belief that it’s always better to just go along with others.
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Insecurity and Feelings of Worthlessness.
When you have many insecurities and think little of yourself, you feel that you should expect to be rejected at any time, and you often feel that you deserve it. You can’t think of any reason for people to be interested in you, much less approve of you or love you.
Deep down, you’re convinced that you’re not enough as you are and that you’re not worthy of love, and this leads you to always being on your guard for imminent rejection.
Such anticipation and fear of rejection drive you to never assert yourself, as you come to believe that you gain worth as a person only when you please or serve others as they wish. You have never believed that people can like you for you, and so you end up feeling the need to stretch yourself by pleasing or serving others in order to gain approval and love. Thus, you do whatever it takes to avoid others’ displeasure and rejection. You prostrate yourself for approval, even if only as a type of servant.
Feeling unworthy of love isn’t something many people readily admit to. Sometimes it’s even something completely unconscious, like an invisible but deep wound you don’t know you have but which still keeps hurting you enough to drive many of your behaviors. Maybe you acknowledged it long before you even hit puberty. Or maybe you’ve managed to convince yourself you’re no good compared to a sibling your parents have always favored over you, or to your popular friend who always gets awarded all the stars.
In your core, you believe that, no, you’re not worth any love freely and unconditionally given to you. But somewhere along the way, you’ve stumbled upon this idea: you may not be worthy of that love as you are, but maybe there is a way for you to win that love by always trying to be more, to give more, to serve more.
And so you’ve fallen into the habit of never asserting to the best of your ability in the hopes of gaining that love despite feeling unworthy of it.
Equating Self-Assertion with Badness.
The importance of being a good person is often a central lesson taught at home and in school, right from the earliest days of molding a child. When you’re a child, this is likely among the first pieces of advice Mommy or Daddy gave you: “Play nice,” “Be kind,” and “Be good.”
Those three keywords are often used interchangeably, too—nice equals kind equals good, so much so that you come to think of this domain of behavior as black and white. You believe that you must always be nice in order to be a good person, and anything that taints such an image of niceness—for example, refusing to grant a favor or calling out someone for stepping on your rights—makes you a bad person. This is a highly skewed perspective of how relationships should work.
If it matters to you a lot that you are perceived by people as nice and good, you’ll surely be ready to sacrifice inordinate amounts of time and effort catering to everyone’s needs and wants.
Wanting to be a good person and even wanting to be seen as someone who’s nice are not dishonorable desires. It’s perfectly acceptable to be assertive as required by the situation, and it wouldn’t make you any less of a good person for being so. In the same way, the idea that being selfless all the time necessarily makes you a good person is also a distorted view.
Selflessness, noble as it may appear, can become a vice if you indiscriminately use it not out of genuine concern for others but out of a need to project an image people can admire.
This good kind of selfishness is one that’s necessary, a centering upon yourself in order to maintain your health and replenish your energy before you give of yourself to others and to prevent spreading yourself too thinly by catering to everyone else’s demands.
For the sake of your own health, happiness, and dreams, you need to practice this kind of selfishness without feeling guilty that you might be taking anything away from others. As a matter of fact, it’s by allowing yourself to be selfish at times that you can ensure you’ll be able to look out for others and share the happiness you feel for them more fully.
Fear of Confrontation.
When you’re afraid to rock the boat, you will be content with going along with what everyone else wants, feel pressured to accept every request, and never dare to say no or stand up for yourself.
Since you’re perpetually afraid to be direct with people with regard to your own opinions, feelings, wants, and needs, you’re likely to be reduced to becoming a pushover or a doormat. What’s more, you may not always be aware that it is this fear of confrontation that leads you to behave in such ways.
You may be afraid to confront people with what you really want because you’re afraid you might not be heard regardless. You may be anxious that trying to stand up for yourself may only find you humiliated in the end, should you fail to win that argument for your rights to be respected. You may hate tension and emotional discomfort. You may want to avoid harsh truths about yourself and would rather bury your head in the sand.
You may dread that confrontation might lead you to terrible consequences, whether imagined or real. You may be apprehensive that confrontation will force ugly, unmanageable emotions to arise—guilt, anger, and disgust, to name a few—both in yourself and in those you confront. The bottom line is that you’re afraid that confrontation will only make things worse and that you won’t be able to handle that either.
So to prevent things from getting worse, you have a solution—you avoid speaking up, saying no, or confronting anyone altogether and simply take what you believe is the path of least resistance. If it happens to be inaction, so be it.
Because you’re afraid of the possible consequences of acting on that desire to confront, you end up holding off on confrontation.
This often results in that desire for confrontation leaking out in other, usually ugly and damaging ways. Instead of being expressed directly, it brims over through indirect means in the form of passive-aggressive behaviors.
Passive-aggressive behaviors represent indirect expressions of hostility. You may not have directly said no to a colleague who’s requested that you file a report on her behalf, but you conveniently forget to do that task as a way to indirectly express your resentment at having been asked to do so. Or you may assure your spouse that you’re not at all mad he didn’t call you once during his work trip, but you retaliate by acting cold and “forgetting” to update him about your whereabouts all week.
So while you have managed to stave off direct confrontation in an attempt to preserve goodwill in the relationship, your actions still end up backfiring by leaving you prone to passive-aggressive behaviors that undermine the relationship anyhow.
Thus, avoiding confrontation for fear that it might only make things worse ironically results in the very outcomes it’s meant to deflect.
No matter how compliant and adaptable you believe you are, you’re bound to run into conflict at one point or another, simply by virtue of you being an individual with your own set of thoughts, feelings, needs, and values that may very well differ from that of others. If you are to keep your relationships with others (and with yourself) healthy, you’ll thus need to have the ability to tolerate being in the face of conflict and get past your fear of confrontation.
Lacking assertiveness can be a hard habit to kick, especially because it’s not a blatantly nasty tendency to have. In fact, it often helps you appear supremely likable and noble and occasionally rewards you with feelings of contentment when people repay you by smiling and saying thank-you after every favor you grant and every transgression you let slide.
It’s time to ask yourself whether you’d really want to keep living your life this way, chained to the self-destructive habit of being at everyone else’s beck and call 24/7.