Experts offer tips on assertiveness at home, at work, and everywhere else.
By R. Morgan Griffin
Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario
It's 5:05 on a Friday. You're buttoning your coat as you hurry to the exit of your office building. But behind you, the door to your supervisor's office rattles open. You can sense his approach. You know what he's going to ask. But this time you'll be strong. After all, you've had absolutely unbreakable plans for months.
Yet when your boss taps your shoulder and asks -- again! -- to come into work on Saturday morning, your backbone transforms to overcooked linguini. The words spill out of your mouth before you even know you're speaking. "Sure, no problem," you hear yourself chirp. Once again, with a few words, you've ruined your weekend.
Well, you might be a wimp. But the good news is that it's a treatable condition. In order to help the countless self-diagnosed wimps out there, WebMD got some advice from psychologists who specialize in helping people learn assertiveness and how to -- at least occasionally -- say no.
The Many Faces of the Wimp
While some of us are universal wimps -- cowed and unassertive in every arena of our lives -- a lot of people specialize, says Sharon Greenburg, PhD, a psychologist in Chicago. A milquetoast at work can be bossy, or even tyrannical, at home. A confident go-getter will stammer and sweat every time she has to return something to a store.
So where are you at your most wimpy?
- With people who work under you? When a person who works for you does a shoddy job on a report, do you confront him about the problem, or do you stay late and rewrite it yourself?
- With your family? Can just the hint of disapproval in your mother's voice make you upend your schedule, skipping out on long-standing plans with your boyfriend so you can attend your second-cousin's second baby shower?
- With your friends? Are you always giving friends a ride to the airport or helping them move, even when they never offer anything in return?
- With your children? When you need to run some errands and your toddler stoutly refuses to put on his hat on a wintry day, do you risk the potential tantrum or decide to stay home?
- With strangers? When you walk out of the supermarket and realize that the cashier gave you $5 less change than you were supposed to get, do you go back in, or slink to your car?
Wimps come in all varieties. The archetypal wimp is, of course, a guy -- the poor wretch who gets sand kicked in his face by the high school quarterback. But the experts say that women can face particular problems.
"Women are more likely to have trouble sticking up for themselves," says Greenburg, who has taught many groups on assertiveness. "There's still this expectation that women are supposed to be caring and nurturing that can make it hard for them to get their own needs met."
The Problem With Wimping Out
Being a wimp usually has a short-term advantage. If you never say no, you never need to displease anybody. If you avoid conflict, everyone will find you agreeable.
But in the long run, it's not a good way to live your life. People unskilled in assertiveness often keep grudges and build up anger, says Elizabeth Stirling, PhD, a practicing psychologist in Sante Fe, N.M. That can leak out in all sorts of ways. Without meaning to, you may wind up taking out your frustration on people who don't deserve it. You may begin to smolder with passive-aggressiveness.
You may even start to get physical symptoms: headaches, stomach problems, and so on. "People can really get sick from this stress," Stirling tells WebMD. So in every way, wimpiness is bad for your health.
So how can you oust your inner wimp? The key to assertiveness is changing some of the ways you think and act. The experts suggest that you:
- Figure out what you want ... "The first step is defining, to yourself, what it is you need," says Marion Frank, EdD, who practices in Philadelphia. "That's true at work, or in a relationship, or with your family." Do you want your boss to stop dumping work on you? Do you want your spouse to help out more with the cooking? Figure out, specifically, what you're looking for.
- ... And then ask for it. Once you know what you need, asking for it is the obvious next step. "Expressing yourself is essential to resolving a conflict," says Greenburg. "If you can't say what you feel and what you want, nothing's going to change."
Keep it specific. "When you're asking someone for something, come up with a goal that you can put into a sentence of about five words," says Frank, who has taught assertiveness training for many years. "Keep it in mind so that, when you're in conversation, you won't get drawn off course."
- Learn to say no. "Saying 'yes' to everyone is a bad habit," Frank tells WebMD. "But like smoking or anything else, it's a habit you can break." If "no" seems too blunt at first, Franks suggests that when you're asked to do something, say you'll think about it before answering.
Stirling agrees that saying "no" may not come naturally. So she recommends that you practice. "Stand in front of a mirror," she says, "and say 'no' out loud." Try out your responses to particular situations.
- Think about what you're afraid of. Many people who have trouble with assertiveness have inflated fears of what will happen if they say no. Try to examine your worries and see if they make sense. Will you really lose your job if you refuse to pick up the office doughnuts every morning? Will you really you ruin your friendship with a pal if you decline his request to help him paint his house?
- Ask other people to be clear. If you're going to clearly express what you need, you should expect the same from other people. Wimps are prone to acting on what they think someone is implying. For instance, if your co-worker is hinting that she wants you to stay late and help her with a project, don't act -- and then get resentful -- based on what you think she's thinking. Instead ask flat-out, "Do you want me to stay and help?" Then decide whether you want to or not.
- Learn the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness. Many wimps are so afraid of being mean or rude that they see any expression of self-assertiveness as obnoxious. But that's not the case at all.
"When you're being assertive, you're not attacking someone else," says Stirling. "You're not being rude or mean. You're just standing up for your own rights."
- Learn how to take criticism. Being criticized is almost never fun. But people who lack assertiveness are more likely to take criticism without a peep -- only to stew about it for weeks afterward.
Instead of that unhelpful approach, Frank recommends that you get details on any negative feedback. "If you've written a report that your supervisor has problems with, get specifics," she says. "Find out what he or she didn't like. Criticism is a good thing when you can learn from it."
- Exercise your rights. "Every person has rights," says Frank. "You have the right to be treated well and fairly. You have the right to speak up and ask for what you want."
Standing Up for Yourself
So let's return to the scenario we started with: as you leave work, your boss catches you and asks you to come in on Saturday. You have plans, and working on Saturdays is certainly not part of your job description. What should you do?
Saying "I'm sorry, I have plans" would be ideal. But that might seem too blunt. Whatever you do, don't blurt out a yes. Take a minute to think. If you need to, ask to call back in an hour with an answer, Franks says.
Also, be explicit -- it's key to assertiveness. If you're only supposed to work a 40-hour week -- and you've done your time already -- say so. For instance, you could say, "I know that this new project is really important. But I've already filled up the whole workweek with two other projects. Would it help if I shifted my priorities next week?"
"You need to make clear that you're not refusing to do your job," Greenburg tells WebMD. "You're just pointing out that you have a lot of other things going on as well, and you can't do everything."
Of course, this is easier said that done. Right now, you might sooner put your head in a guillotine than displease anyone, especially your boss. But while Frank admits it can be hard, the pay-off to learning assertiveness is worth it.
"You can't wait until you feel more self-confident to start trying these techniques," she says. "Instead, you start by using these skills, even if it feels awkward and weird. Once you begin using them, you'll start to feel better. It gets easier as you realize that you don't have to feel like a doormat all the time."
By gradually putting these tips into practice, even the most hopeless wimps can really change how people treat them -- and how they view themselves.
"It's never too late to change," says Franks. "And people who learn how to assert themselves really feel so much better in every aspect of their lives."
Published March 14, 2005.
SOURCES: Marion Frank, EdD, professional psychology services, Philadelphia. Sharon Greenburg, PhD, privately practicing psychologist, Chicago. Elizabeth Stirling, PhD, privately practicing psychologist, Sante Fe, N.M.
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