Ending the practice of worrying about what others think of you is much easier said than done. I could tell you to stop worrying because it doesn’t serve you, but the next time you want to speak up at a meeting or present an idea or simply be heard, you will revert back to your old way of thinking (to worry about what others think) because this action is deeply entrenched in the neural pathways in your brain. The “worry” reaction now feels like an instinct for you. This likely stems from an event or a collection of experiences in your childhood that essentially sent you a message that you are not enough. If you believed the opposite, that you are enough, you would not be bothered by what others think of you because you wouldn’t have the need to prove you are enough. If the words that come out of your mouth aren’t earth shattering or no one likes your idea, you would be fine because your worth and value aren’t tied to how others define you.
A few steps you can take to change:
- Do the deep work of figuring out where the “I’m not enough” belief came from. It may have been spoken directly to you or you assumed the meaning. Replay the memories and tell yourself you are enough. (This practice may require the help of a therapist if the memories are non-existent or cause you emotional or mental distress. Attachment-based approaches, Emotionally Focused Therapy and EMDR are powerful methods for transforming negative messages from past experiences into positive ones.)
- Remind yourself that you are enough when you feel the exact opposite. For awhile you will continue to worry about what others think of you. Over time, as you continually refocus your mind on “I am enough” you will diminish the voice of the “I am not enough” neural pathway in your brain.
- Invite some friends you can be real with (who probably have their own “I’m not enough” issues) to join you. We heal most profoundly when we are on the journey with trusted friends. Share your experiences with each other and remind one another that you are enough.
This seems so simple when presented in black and white. The reality of this journey is it took a long time to solidify the negative belief, it’s going to take a long time, filled with intention, to change it. The journey is so worth it! Stay in there!
Just before I clicked “publish” to post “The Benefits of Assertiveness Part I,” I knew I was going to write a follow-up. That’s when I edited the title, adding “Part I”. I realized that the encouragement to go for it with assertiveness could be paralyzing for some. Often the parts in us that seem to be in hiding are not simply going to emerge with gusto just because we’ve read an inspiring article. I know, I’ve been there. I’ll read something that makes life change seem so simple. Broken down into tidy steps: 1, 2 ,3. I see myself taking the steps and voila! the problem is gone. When I actually attempt to make the change…well…it sure doesn’t resemble anything that would be preceded by “voila!”
The journey toward emotional health rarely follows a straight line upward and to the right. It looks a lot more like a zig zag going up and down, all over the board, yet still revealing a general trend heading gently upward and toward the right. It can be challenging to notice that our movement isn’t always consistently going in the direction we want it to, but that’s reality for most of us. We are flawed, imperfect beings. We are inconsistent by nature. The goal in our growth cannot be perfection. Not only is perfection discouraging, it simply isn’t possible. When we set the bar so high that we can never reach it, we tend to find ourselves stagnated by discouragement. Ever been there?
If being assertive is a challenge for you, I hope that you will find comfort in knowing that you are not alone. Sometimes it helps just to be aware of that. “Oh, so this part of me that doesn’t work the way I want it to is something other people deal with, too?” Yes! You might even be surprised if you could hear the very real and honest thoughts of those around you. Thoughts and feelings of inadequacy, fear of failure, thinking they are too much or not enough just to name a few. Acknowledge what you are dealing with and how you feel about it.
Notice that part of you when it shows up. In my example with assertiveness, I started being aware of it. I would notice what it felt like when I had something to say, but held it in or chose to be inactive instead of acting on something. I asked myself what was holding me back. In most cases it was rooted in a long-held belief that I have to be liked. I thought people only liked those who were always amenable. There is another root for me and that one is perfectionism. If I attempt something and it’s not perfect, I believe I will not be accepted. The work on those two pieces actually required therapy. Yes, even therapists need a therapist. In fact, I believe a good therapist has participated in therapy and continues to work on her stuff! You may need to work with a therapist, too. If you continually find yourself stuck, desperately wanting to change but never seeing any results, I recommend you find a good therapist.
Once you’ve identified the why behind not being assertive ask yourself the risks involved with changing. For me, the risk of being assertive meant not everyone will like me and I might not execute things with perfection. I grew to be ok with that. As I let go of my desire to be liked by everyone (which is just not possible, anyway) and my perfectionism, I began taking steps toward expressing my assertiveness. It’s not always neat and tidy. I stumble along the way, but I’m moving. I like to think of working on our undeveloped parts being like a baby learning to walk. Have you ever witnessed this feat? They never go from laying on the ground to walking. NEVER! They first have to develop the muscles necessary to get themselves up on all fours, gradually moving to pulling themselves up to standing. When they finally take that first step it is wobbly. They typically fall, a lot! Oh, and they never go from first steps to running with ease overnight. It takes years to graduate to smooth running.
I like to keep this in mind any time I am changing a behavior or developing a new way of relating to myself and those around me. We can be so hard on ourselves when we don’t see immediate change. Just accept that it isn’t possible, be gentle with yourself as you travel down the road of emotional growth. It takes time, it is messy, inconsistent and so worth it!
I’m in a Counselor Training Program with Dr. John Townsend and Scott Makin. One day out of every month I am in Indianapolis being challenged in my personal growth as well as learning all about the counseling approach of Drs. John Townsend and Henry Cloud. The training involves teaching time and small group counseling also called process groups. During one of the process groups I stumbled upon a realization that I have a crippling fear of being assertive. It doesn’t usually show up in my office with clients, but anywhere else I shrink back or regret having opened my mouth. I have thought that assertiveness is negative. It’s not that I have never been assertive but when I am I feel like I am pushy and bossy. Maybe those things are true because I am not very skilled at being assertive but I am gaining an understanding of the importance of being assertive.
At the end of each training day, the 21 of us who are participating take time to share our homework for the next month. It has to be measurable and challenge us in some way to be stretched. I came up with the assignment that I would write 10 things that happen when I am assertive. John added that I write 10 things that happen when others are assertive. As I pondered the positive results of my assertiveness it was a bit difficult. I kept running into the negative piece. When I wrote about the benefits of others being assertive it created a shift inside of me. I saw how important assertiveness is in the health and growth of the world. Our very existence depends on assertiveness. This shift opened up a new value for my own assertiveness and the ideas began flowing out of me.
Here they are:
Ten good things that happen when I am assertive
1. I’m not left wondering if I missed out by holding my tongue
2. I feel a sense of accomplishment even if things don’t turn out my way
3. I connect with people versus holding back and being closed
4. I finish things (I’ve spent most of my life dreaming things up but not doing anything with the ideas)
5. I experience forward momentum instead of just swirling in the same old place
6. My creativity is flowing
7. I use the gifts I’ve been given
8. I model self-respect and reap the benefit of respecting myself
9. I create an opportunity for others to find healing
10. My needs get met
When others are assertive
1. Lives are changed physically (like a Dr. helping someone or a person seeking care or health)
2. People’s eternities are altered
3. Dreams are accomplished
4. People are protected
5. Connection happens
6. Employment is secured
7. Babies are born
8. Marriages are saved
9. Truth is spoken
10. Change happens
So here’s my challened to you: Write ten things that happen when others are assertive and your own list of ten things that happen when you are assertive. Ponder that list and then get out there and go for it! The focus isn’t so much on what you accomplish, just that you are actively, instead of passively, living the life that you have been given. There’s a parable in the Bible that talks about using the talent we’ve been given. The one who buries the talent is the one who loses out. Those who go for it, knowing that there is a risk of screwing things up, are the ones who benefit. So take one step today to move toward really living!