Many of us struggle to find the right balance of assertiveness in relationship with a partner, family members, friends or at work. Something is getting in the way of being able to firmly state our own needs, negotiate with others and reach a compromise that is satisfactory for all. How can counselling and psychotherapy help?
Where Does Assertiveness Come From?
How much we assert ourselves is at least partly learnt behavior. As children, we will have observed how the adults around us handle negotiating getting enough of their own needs met whilst at the same time preserving important relationships. Cultural and gender differences can be significant and every family will model its own take on what is acceptable. For example, boys might be encouraged to assert themselves and girls to accommodate others’ needs. Also, we might well have experimented with asserting ourselves in various ways as we grow up and will have learnt from these experiences and the consequences that followed.
How Much Is Enough?
As is often the case with interpersonal problems, it is the extremes that cause the most difficulties. If we are not assertive enough, our needs go unmet and we may end up feeling resentful or powerless; if we are too assertive, this can tip over into rigidity and bullying. At some point in our lives we might have made decisions (often just out of immediate awareness) as to whether or how much we assert ourselves in certain situations. These decisions are usually based on assumptions about how to be in the world in a way that – given the information available at the time – was our best shot at maximising emotional and physical safety.
If we lack assertiveness, there might be a number of unhelpful assumptions that lie behind this. For example, if I state my needs with confidence and stand my ground on the things that matter to me:
- I will be shamed (and that is far worse then feeling angry or aggrieved)
- it will be a waste of energy, asserting myself is futile
- I will upset the people on whom I depend and who knows where that will lead
- I will be abandoned
- I will be ostracised for breaking a social code
- other people will suffer
Also, it is possible that we are using a strategy which works well in some situations, but not in others. For example, we might have been taught as children that it is imperative to fight for what we want and to take no prisoners. This might be a useful strategy when searching for work but can be particularly disastrous when applied to intimate relationships. If we always fight long and hard to get what we want – without compromise – and don’t allow others to challenge our behaviour, we risk damaging the relationship to the point where we lose it altogether.
How Can Counselling & Psychotherapy Help?
My approach to counselling and psychotherapy involves identifying the unique set of assumptions that underpins your current personal strategies for being in the world. Counselling provides a safe space in which to question these assumptions and determine whether they are still relevant to your life right now. If finding the right balance of assertiveness has become a problem for you, I would be interested in how your family of origin modelled assertiveness and whether decisions based on previous experiences are holding you back. Together we can explore new possibilities for stating your needs and how best to negotiate with others to reach workable compromises.
If you live or work within reach of Brighton and Hove and my approach to psychotherapy and counselling interests you, please contact me via email or telephone 07585 910742 for more information and to arrange an initial consultation. Emailing in the first instance seems to work best.
Copyright Caroline Clarke, Counselling and Psychotherapy in Brighton and Hove, Sussex.
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