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Assertiveness – your basic rights

June 15, 2009

As promised in part 4 of the de-cluttering blogs (and slightly later than planned), here is the more in-depth look at the bill of rights as listed in Anne Dickson’s book, A Woman in Your Own Right: Assertiveness and You.

Although the book is aimed at women (and this piece reflects that gender bias somewhat), these are all basic human rights which apply equally to men and to children.

* I have the right to state my own needs and set my own priorities as a person independent of any role that I may assume in my life.

This does not imply that you no longer have to honour the responsibilities within the roles you assume, e.g. spouse, parent, employee etc, but is simply a reminder that your own needs are as important  as the needs of those you care for. Women in particular find that they lose themselves in their roles – since having my daughter, I seem to have transmuted socially into ‘Phoebe’s mum’ rather than a person in my own right. When the world sees you as your role rather than for yourself, it’s easy for a woman to feel that maybe this role – and the people she cares for when in this role – is more important. Even if you find that your needs conflict with these roles – and it can be hard to carve out time for yourself in between fulfilling your obligations – it is still vital that you do your best to meet those needs in whatever way you can.

* I have the right to be treated with respect as an intelligent, capable and equal human being.

Though we may all pay lip service to this right, often we do not even treat ourselves with respect and some women unfortunately have a tendency to play down their intelligence to fulfil their expected role in our patriarchal society (remember that character in the Fast Show who was a strong assertive career woman around other women, but a simpering girl around the men?). You may also struggle when you’re in a situation where you feel out of your depth through lack of expertise – for example, when dealing with a doctor, a mechanic or anyone who has some kind of know-how which you simply don’t possess. Remember this important right and don’t allow yourself to be intimidated.

* I have the right to express my feelings.

It is important – though not always easy – to identify and accept what you feel and give yourself permission to express these feelings. Emotional expression has been seen as a weakness in our society, which has resulted in many people losing touch with how they genuinely feel. It is therefore important to become aware of how you feel at the time (rather than agonise over it for days, weeks or months before you realise), accept the way you feel and adequately express it. However, remember to express your feelings in an appropriate manner, always being aware that assertiveness is not the same as aggression. Blaming, name-calling etc is never acceptable in any circumstance.

* I have the right to express my opinions and values.

Even if the majority disagree with you, you have the right to your own opinions and values. You also have the right to stand up for these opinions, if you choose to, as well as the right to not be bullied into justifying them.

* I have the right to say yes or no for myself.

This sounds straightforward but is actually connected to the first right about roles and responsibilities. Often your other roles can be an obstacle to making choices for yourself. However, if your family or friends want to know why you want to do a certain thing, whether it’s changing your job, leaving a relationship, going to college or even just getting a new hairstyle, you have no need to justify yourself. Because you want to is enough.

* I have the right to make mistakes.

Many of us believe that making a mistake is unacceptable and demonstrates a failing on our part. However you can make a mistake without it implying that in essence you are lacking in someway. You can behave incorrectly, make a wrong move or do a bad job without it indicating some intrinsic flaw in your character. This right can permit us to acknowledge the mistaken piece of behaviour without losing that central core of self-belief.

* I have the right to change my mind.

In the early stages of learning to make assertive choices, this right can be invaluable. Often decisions are made for the wrong reasons. You may believe it’s what is expected of you or that it’s what the other person wants. However these decisions are usually the ones we grow to regret. Learning to assertively change your mind prevents you having to proceed with a commitment you are unhappy about.

* I have the right to say I don’t understand.

As with making mistakes, we often feel an undue amount of shame as adults in acknowledging lack of comprehension or ignorance. However we can hardly expect to know everything any more than we can expect to be perfect. With this right in mind we can learn to acknowledge confusion or a lack of knowledge without feeling stupid or ashamed.

* I have the right to ask for what I want.

Most people would agree that this is reasonable and that everyone has the right to ask for what they want – until your request conflicts with their wishes or expectations. Many people, especially women, spend their lives going along with what others want or what other people tell them they want, and end up settling for something which is unfulfilling for them because they do not feel they have the right to persist and upset others. We’ve all been on the receiving end of the somewhat irritating ‘passive-aggressive’ approach where someone drops hints rather than makes a direct request: “Oh, don’t worry about me – *sigh* –  I can manage fine on my own… if only my back didn’t hurt so much…” . Asking for what you want outright – ‘I’d like some help, please’ will gain you a lot more respect, from yourself as well as others.

* I have the right to decline responsibility for other people’s problems.

It is especially important to remember this right when in a caring or helping role. The problem arises here not in choosing to take care of or help people in need or those we love, but in compulsively taking care of everyone else all the time so that there is no time or consideration for our own personal needs. This right involves setting our own limits about who to care for and whose needs to put before our own, and refusing to give in to demands made using emotional blackmail. It’s not selfish or uncaring to take care of you – it’s healthy. And don’t let those perpetual victims tell you otherwise.

* I have the right to deal with others without being dependent on them for approval.

This right underlies all the above. The need for approval is the single most important factor which creates unassertive behaviour. An early association is formed in childhood between behaving in a way which is approved of and earning a loving response. Therefore many of us still fear disapproval as it threatens our basic self-esteem. It is important to remember that most of the time, although we project this disapproval onto others, it is actually our own inner critic which is creating the ‘disapproval’. The more effectively you can silence, or at least reduce, your own inner critic to realistic proportions, the more successfully you can assess your own behaviour and unhook yourself from dependence on the opinions of others. As your concern about ‘what others think’ lessens, you soon come to realise that even if someone does disapprove of you, it’s not the end of the world. This last right demonstrates the point made at the start of this blog entry which is that self-esteem and assertiveness go hand in hand. The more you are aware of your basic rights, the easier it will be to behave assertively.

Finally, this quote from Anne Dickson sums up why I think assertiveness is an important quality for us all:

Assertiveness offers hope. Because it is based on self-esteem, it offers a new way of relating to other people. The power that is released when individuals stop hating themselves is a potentially remarkable force for change. We are less afraid to make contact with others whose lives and values are very different because we can move from a centred sense of self. As we free ourselves from the tyranny of self-hatred we can contribute to that process of liberation in others and acquire the necessary humility and wisdom to recognise both our individuality and interdependence as people in this world.

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