How do you ask for what you want? Well, you already know how. But we don’t for various reasons, the first of which is that they should have known. They should have been able to read our minds and understand and anticipate our needs. Yes, in fairy tales, but not in reality.
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How to Ask for What You Want and Get It
Meghan’s birthday was last Friday. Her husband, Tim, asked her what she wanted to do, but she was noncommittal and said anything would be fine. Secretly, however, Meghan started imagining what the evening might entail: a drive downtown, a walk through a few quaint little shops, a quiet dinner with wine and a special delivery of flowers right to the table, intriguing conversation, and tender kisses under the stars—a perfect night. She figured her husband should know her well enough to make some semblance of this a reality.
Tim, who was determined to make the night special, tried to remember some of the things he had heard Meghan mention over the last few weeks. After careful planning, he was sure she would love his idea. So why was Meghan so upset when Tim announced they were taking the kids to the circus, then trying out the new bowling alley and pizza parlor down near the university to celebrate?
Meghan wanted a quiet, romantic, kid-free birthday celebration; Tim wanted to show her he had paid attention when she mentioned the circus was in town and that she had heard the new bowling alley had her favorite—Chicago-style pizza. Meghan was trying not to seem demanding; Tim was trying to guess what she wanted. Unfortunately, he was wrong, and both parties ended up unhappy and annoyed.
Could this situation have been improved with assertiveness? It seems so simple and even easy, but this is probably not an unfamiliar situation. One of the biggest reasons people fail to get what they want is by failing to ask for what they want. For all the reasons we’ve covered in this book and more, we just hate asking.
But despite what people say, including your mother, nobody else can put you first like you will. Things won’t magically get better on their own if you just wait a bit longer, and you can’t depend on people to recognize what they’ve done wrong. These things all fall on you and your pending powers of assertiveness. Actions follow thoughts, so we need to imbue you with a mindset for assertiveness before talking about the concrete steps and phrases you can use on people.
You’re entirely responsible for your own happiness and destiny. This might be daunting for some who let others affect their choices, satisfaction, and even whether or not today will be a good day, but it actually puts you in a position of strength.
If you put the hard work in and strategically plan the life you want, it’s in your hands to achieve it. Assertiveness is the only way to guarantee that someone in the world has your best interests at heart.
The main step in this process is to prioritize yourself.
It’s instilled in people from a young age that putting others first makes you a good person. Altruism, the principle of being charitable and selfless, has been proven to benefit physical and mental well-being; you may have heard of people with depression being encouraged to volunteer and help others in need to lessen their focus on their own pain.
However, any potential benefits to altruism are lost when you prioritize other people’s needs before your own. You end up ignoring your own needs and making sacrifices and decisions that hold you back. This not only hurts you but negatively impacts the people you think you’re helping.
Funnily enough, prioritizing yourself lets you help other people better. It’s like the pre-flight information on an airplane implores you to first put on your oxygen mask before helping anyone else.
Altruism is a balanced lifestyle where prioritizing yourself is a good thing, but when your life is entirely devoted to looking after others, it stops you from being assertive. It isn’t balanced or healthy to believe that your primary role in life is to serve others. Sometimes it’s necessary to cast altruism aside and stop putting others first and focus more generally on prioritizing yourself, your desires, and your needs.
Consider the parents who praise their child for letting a friend play with his toys without a fuss. They overlook the fact that his friend snatches the toys and pushes their son when he tries to share. Despite his own discomfort and the unfairness of it all, their child learns that accepting this unfair treatment makes him a “good boy.” His altruistic behavior is being reinforced, and his understanding of the world is that total sacrifice is needed to make others happy.
This would have been a perfect scenario for the parents to teach their child about assertiveness. Instead, his needs are overshadowed by his parents’ desire for the children to get along and for them to have a kind, giving son. This is just as unfair as the friend’s desire to be in charge overshadowing the child’s need to feel equal and safe.
For many, life is a movie—at best a glitzy rom-com or at worst a gory horror flick—where they’re the lead character. They see themselves as the heroes, with everyone else in their life acting as less important supporting characters. If you agree that others are the lead characters and you serve as their sidekick, you may be suffering from “supporting actor syndrome.” This prevents you from ever prioritizing yourself.
Selfless behaviors from “supporting actor syndrome” negatively affect your life. You might have stayed up late consoling your friend who broke up with their partner only to sleep through your alarm and wake to a text from them telling you they’re back together and so glad they don’t have work that day. This is likely one of many examples where their needs come first in your relationship with them.
Some friends will disappear once they realize you can no longer be their supporting actor. You slowly spent your savings and put your own life on hold to help someone get back on their feet who promptly dropped you once they realized what they thought was an endless supply of patience and money was drying up. You see serving and prioritizing others as your role because you don’t see yourself as the hero in your own movie, and you always lose out because of this.
You may argue that you do prioritize yourself, but only once you’ve done your “good deeds,” because doing these things makes you a nice person.
Perhaps you have a schedule full of favors for others but always plan and look forward to some you-time on Saturdays. Only, last Saturday you had to drive your friend to the airport because she doesn’t trust taxis to be on time; the one before that, you had to work to help out a colleague who was behind on a project; the one before that, you ended up grocery shopping for your neighbor whose check hadn’t cleared . . .
Telling yourself that after you’ve sorted out your to-do list you’ll prioritize yourself is useless. It’s also a contradiction. The time you assume you’ll have just doesn’t exist. Instead of making room to help others, you should always prioritize yourself. Reverse the order in which you place things into your calendar, and you’ll see how little you were putting yourself first.
Clearly, the most effective way of increasing assertiveness is to get better at asking for what you want. You didn’t need to read this far in the book for this type of amazing insight.
When people fail to speak up and ask for what they want, they are not thinking, ‘I don’t care’ or ‘It doesn’t matter to me.’ They are actually thinking, and more significantly, believing, ‘I don’t feel comfortable’ or ‘I don’t feel worthy.’ Whatever the case, they feel that more negativity will arise than positivity if they make a perfectly reasonable request. In order to become more assertive, those thoughts need to vanish.
In the example above, Meghan could have been hearing either one of those phrases in her mind. Maybe she did not feel comfortable asking for a quiet dinner out because she knew it would mean spending money on a sitter, driving away from their neighborhood, or doing things she was not sure Tim would enjoy.
Maybe she did not feel worthy because a date like she imagined would include her being the center of Tim’s attention, and she was not sure he would want to spend an evening like that. Either way, because she did not make her preference known, she was disappointed, and Tim went to a lot of effort only to disappoint her. Happy birthday to no one.
Becoming comfortable asking for what you want, especially if you are not used to doing so, takes practice. There are no magic phrases; it is a matter of identifying what your desired outcome is and then finding the words to ask for it. Had Meghan just said something like, “I’d like a quiet dinner with just us,” Tim, unless he is completely clueless, would not have planned going to the circus followed by pizza and bowling.
The mindset of assertiveness is important, but so is knowing the potential ways in which we sabotage ourselves. Sometimes, we think we’ve asked or asserted ourselves, but in reality we haven’t said anything at all.