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Friday, September 18, 2009

Assertiveness: Learning to Say "No"

Do you often find yourself in situations where you said "Yes" where you wish you had said "No"?

Do you feel you would be "rude" or "unkind" if you turned down other people's requests?

Are you able to say "No" in certain situations, but then feel you have to apologize or say something like, "I hope that's okay" because you're afraid that people won't like you if you say "No"?


Problems with Assertiveness

Do you avoid taking calls from certain friends or family members when you know they're calling to ask a favor of you that you know you either can't or don't want to do?

Do you agree to do certain things for people and then seethe silently with anger and resentment?

If you answered "Yes" to any of the above questions, more than likely, you're having problems asserting yourself enough to be able to say "No."

Many people have problems saying "No." They feel uncomfortable and think it would be either too hurtful to the other person or they worry that if they say "No," they'll be seen as mean or uncaring. They often lack the self confidence to feel they are entitled to say "No." They will often go to great lengths to accommodate others to the detriment of their own health and well-being. Under certain circumstances, if they know that someone is about to ask them to do something that they really don't want to do, they might avoid that person, which causes other problems when that person feels ignored.

Although both men and women have this problem, it tends to come up more with women. Women are often raised to feel that they must accommodate others, no matter what the consequences are for themselves. In our society, women are also seen as the "nurturers," "caregivers," and encouraged to be "people pleasers," so there's often pressure to take care of other people's requests and problems.

Here are some typical examples of situations where people have problems asserting themselves enough to say "No." See if you can identify with any of them.

Scenario 1:
Mary is the second oldest adult child in a family of five children. She's also the oldest daughter. She and her brothers and sisters live about the same distance away from their aging parents. Whenever her parents need help, they call Mary. Whether it's a matter of taking them to doctor's appointments, grocery shopping, helping them to set up their computer, whatever they need help with, they expect Mary to help them. Their way of thinking is that she's the oldest daughter and this is her role. Mary loves her parents very much, but she's often exhausted after a week of working full time and, as a single mom, taking care of her teenage children. She never turns down any of her parents' requests, but lately she's been feeling irritable and resentful whenever they call. She feels too guilty to say "No" or to ask her brothers and sisters to pitch in, so she seethes in anger instead. Lately, she's been having tension headaches, and during her last doctor's visit, her doctor warned her that her blood pressure was a little high and she needs to reduce her stress. She knows she needs to find a way to change the dynamic with her parents, but she doesn't know how.

Scenario 2:
Bob and Dan are colleagues in the same company. Over the years, they have become friends. Bob enjoys Dan's company and they and their wives often socialize on the weekends. Over the last few years, Dan has borrowed a few hundred dollars from Bob, but he hasn't paid him back. Initially, Dan was apologetic and said he would pay Bob back, but lately Dan has not mentioned the money at all. Bob is annoyed about this, but he tells himself that Dan has had several unexpected financial setbacks, so he doesn't want to ask him for the money. But Bob's wife recently lost her job and now they're trying to get by on just one salary until she can find a new job. Finances have been tight. They've had to cut back on certain expenses, like sending their daughter to the dance classes that she loved. Lately, Bob's wife has been pressuring him to ask Dan for the money he owes them. But Bob feels that if he asks Dan for the money, he wouldn't be a good friend. Then, one afternoon, Dan leaves Bob a familiar voicemail message at work, "I'm in a jam. I need to talk to you. Can we have lunch?" Bob recognizes the familiar words and tone as a sign that Dan wants to borrow more money. Rather than calling him back, Bob avoids Dan for the next few days because he doesn't know how he can say "No" to Dan's request, but he also knows that he can't afford to lend him any more money. So, he doesn't know what to do.

Scenario 3:
Nancy is a writer and she works from home. She loves her work and she has been getting more frequent and interesting assignments lately from her editor. Nancy knows this is a sign that her editor really likes her work and she is progressing in her career. She wants to continue to do well so she can get more of these types of projects. These interesting assignment also come with more stringent deadlines. She's disciplined about how she does her work at home and she has never missed a deadline yet. Her latest assignment has been the most exciting one so far. She knows it will be a challenge to get the piece to her editor on time, but she thinks she can do it if she stays focused. However, the problem lately is that she has an elderly next door neighbor who lives alone and who is lonely. She likes to "drop by" Nancy's apartment to chat. Nancy likes her neighbor very much and also feels sorry for her because her children never come to visit her. Sometimes, when she's coming up against a deadline, Nancy feels irritated when her neighbor rings her bell. Most of the time, Nancy lets her in and hopes that she won't stay too long. But lately, the elderly neighbor's visits have really been interfering with Nancy's work and she's afraid that she's going to miss her deadline for this new project. She doesn't want to hurt the neighbor's feelings, but she can't miss her deadline. She doesn't know what to do.

Scenario 4:
Alice has a stressful full time job. She and her husband are also raising three young children who are in elementary school. Alice is also involved in the PTA and other local community groups. Lately, several colleagues have been laid off at work, so Alice has been asked to take on additional work assignments. By the end of the day, after helping her children with their homework and putting them to bed, she's exhausted. Now that Alice is working longer hours, her husband has taken on additional household duties, including cooking, picking up the children from school, doing the laundry and grocery shopping. They have a good marriage, and he has always shared in household responsibilities. He's also working extra hours at work due to company cutbacks. So, they're both stretched to the max. One day, Alice receives a call from the PTA president, who tells Alice that she found out the school will be cutting out several after school activities. These are activities that parents and children have come to rely on. The PTA president is worried and upset about this. She has received numerous calls from parents who don't know what they'll do if these programs are cut. She tells Alice that, in addition to what Alice normally does for the PTA, she needs extra help over the next four weekends from Alice for a fund raising event so they can raise the money to save these programs. Inwardly, Alice cringes because she doesn't know where she'll find the time, but she's caught off guard and she says "Yes." After Alice hangs up the phone, she feels annoyed with herself for taking on this extra work. She also doesn't know how she'll tell her husband, who would have to take on even more responsibilities over the next few weekends because of this new commitment that she has made to the PTA president. She doesn't know what to do.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you or can you see yourself in similar predicaments? Can you think of other ways that each of these people can handle their situations where they don't have to compromise themselves or those close to them and where they can tactfully say "No"?

Fortunately, saying"No" in a tactful way is a skill that can be learned. If you have problems asserting yourself in similar situations, there are certain things that you can do to learn to be more assertive:

Talk to a trusted friend and ask him or her to do role plays with you where you can practice standing up for yourself. As a start, you can use the scenarios presented above and also come up with some of your own that are relevant to your life.

So, for instance in Scenario 1, you can practice how you can speak to your brothers and sisters to ask them to share in the responsibilities of helping your parents. You can also practice with your friend how you would talk to your parents to tell them that, while you want to help out, you can't always be available and explain the reasons why.

In Scenario 2, you can practice telling your friend and colleague, Dan, that while you empathize with his financial problems, you're also having financial problems. So, you can't lend him any more money and you and he need to work out a payment plan for the money that he currently owes you.

In Scenario 3, you can practice talking to your friend as if she were the elderly neighbor and tell her that, while you enjoy her company, there are times when you can't socialize with her because you have work deadlines that must be met. Suggest other times when you can get together to chat.

In Scenario 4, you can practice taking the time to think about what you'd say to the PTA president before automatically saying "Yes" and then regretting it. Since the person in this scenario was caught off guard, you can practice a certain technique that will give you time to think when you're caught off guard. This technique is restating the president's request in a tactful way ("So, let me make sure I understand what you're asking: You're asking me if I can spend about five hours each weekend working on the fund raiser? Is that right?") This gives you time to think of a tactful answer. After your friend, in the role as PTA president, restates her request, you can practice telling her that you can't help out this time because you're already over extended at home and at work. You can also practice stating what you can and can't do. You can also practice from the standpoint of having said "Yes" initially and then calling back the same day and telling her that you've thought about it and regret that you can't do it. This not an ideal way to handle this type of situation. Most of us like to honor our commitments most of the time. We feel that once we've committed ourselves that we want to be true to our word. While I'm not advocating that you go back on your word on a regular basis, there might be certain times when you realize that it's going to be impossible for you to fulfill your commitment. Of course, it would have been better not to have made the commitment at all. But sometimes we make mistakes and we have to learn, when the circumstances are not dire, how to handle these types of situations without feeling completely stuck.

Practice asserting yourself by saying "No" in real life situations that are not so emotionally charged for you.

For instance, if you normally accept every leaflet that people are handing out in your neighborhood, whether you're interested or not, because you feel sorry for the person giving out the leaflets, practice saying "No thanks" in a tactful way. Or if you have a hard time getting telemarketers off the phone, practice saying "Thank you, but I'm really not interested. I would appreciate if you would take me off your list."

Practice writing down in advance what you want to say before you say it.

So, if you have to call a friend to turn down her request, write down what you want to say to her. Of course, you're not going to read it to her, but it's helpful to have the words in front of you if you begin to stumble on the phone.

If you still have a hard time asserting yourself so you can say "No" or you have difficulty setting healthy boundaries with the people in your life, there might be other underlying emotional issues that practicing might not resolve. In that case, you could benefit from dealing with these issues in psychotherapy.

If you have a hard time asserting yourself, you're not alone. This is a common problem that many people have. It's important for you to know that you don't need to suffer in silence. And, remember that there's a big difference between being assertive and being aggressive.

Being Assertive
Being assertive and standing up for yourself doesn't mean you're being aggressive. And, you can learn to develop the self confidence to become more assertive.

Being Assertive
I'm a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist. I have helped many clients to learn to assert themselves in healthy ways.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, please call me at (212) 726-1006.



Top photo credit: spaceodissey via photopin cc

Bottom photo credit: SS&SS via photopin cc



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