During college, I lived in a house with six other women. Yes, you heard that correctly, there were seven of us. In fact, the house was set up in such a way, that one of my housemates actually had to walk through my bedroom to get to her own. Needless to say, it was crowded, awkward, occasionally fun, and often loud. The seven of us were also embroiled in an unspoken stand-off regarding the kitchen garbage. It was hardly ever taken out. Typically, if you needed to throw something away, you would just push the trash down as much as possible while holding your nose, and add your contribution to a heap that was quickly developing its own ecosystem. One day, while I was upstairs…studying…I was studying…I heard a strangled cry, then a scream, then a crash. Again, living in this real world version of the Real World house, these noises were not particularly alarming or uncommon, but my curiosity was piqued. When I arrived downstairs, I was immediately greeted by the smell, it was about one month’s worth of seven people’s trash spread all over the kitchen floor. My housemate Patty* was standing in the middle of it, and she started screaming at me once I entered the kitchen. It was something along the lines of you’re all disgusting, I can’t stand living in this house – being the closest target, I took the brunt of Patty’s pent up rage. Having worked in college counseling for several years, the roommate/garbage dispute can get ugly quickly, and it’s a great opportunity to talk about assertive communication.
- What is assertiveness: Think about communication as a spectrum. On one end, there’s passive communication – never asking for what you want or need, holding in your anger and frustration, expecting others to guess at what you want. Likely what poor Patty had been doing for several months. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s aggression – yelling, screaming, cursing, even hitting to get what you want. Assertive communication exists in between; it is respectfully asking for your wants and needs to be met, in a manner that gives you the best chance at that outcome.
- Why act assertively? Come on Jana, no one is going to give me what I want if I’m nice about it – nice guys finish last, right? If by last you mean frustrated and friendless, you are correct. Otherwise, there are many benefits of communicating assertively rather than passively or aggressively. The more you express your feelings, the less likely you are to explode in a Patty-like rage (I’m so sorry Patty). It really does give you the best possible chance of getting your wants and needs met, and honestly, you’ll plain feel better about yourself afterwards.
- But how do I do this in the real world? Sounds great, but it can take some practice. A simple (not easy, easy is different than simple) way to start is to say no to things that you don’t want. Got invited to a party that you’d rather skip? Say no! There’s no need to offer excuses or apologies, your no is enough. Ready to go pro? Try using this script to assertively ask for change. Give it some practice before you try it out – stand in front of the mirror, or even better, role-play with a friend!
- What happens when I still don’t get what I want? The unfortunate truth is that we can ask others to change, to meet our needs and wants in the most assertive way possible, and they still might not be able to. Remember that the main function of being assertive is actually to express your feelings so that they don’t boil over. Getting what you want is an added bonus.
- What’s getting in the way of my ability to be assertive? Often, our own negative beliefs about ourselves or what it means to be assertive may get in the way. If cognitive distortions are interfering in your ability to get your wants and needs met, try learning to challenge them. Want to learn more? Check out this Personal Bill of Rights when you need some extra encouragement to act assertively.
From television to the world stage, we receive so many conflicting messages about appropriate emotional expression – hold it in, flip a table, etc. By giving assertive communication a try, you’re not only giving yourself the best possible chance to get your wants and needs met, you’ll feel a whole lot better about yourself than if you end up tossing month old garbage all over the floor. Just ask Patty.
*Names have been changed
Dr. Scrivani specializes in the Cognitive Behavioral treatment of anxiety and related disorders, behavioral parent training, and provides tele-mental health services to residents of New York, Florida, and internationally. Call (888) 535-5671 or email [email protected] to set up a free consultation. Visit my website for more information.