I really, really suck at standing up for myself. I am not assertive. I’ve been this way as long as I can remember.I don’t understand why. My parents did not have poor boundaries with me or others. My brothers and I told each other to back off when we were annoyed with each other. But when it comes to anyone else, I’ve pretty much always lacked the ability to say no.
When I was eleven, I loved the Baby-sitters Club. The week Abby’s Book showed up in the bookstore, my mom bought it for me, along with another one I was really excited about. I took them to my brother’s Little League game the next night to read. A girl whose brother was on the opposing team sat with me and told me how much she loved the Baby-sitters Club. At the end of the game she asked me if she could have the books, and I said yes. I didn’t want to, of course. But I had no idea how to say no. I felt like I couldn’t, even though I knew it wasn’t polite for her to just ask for someone else’s stuff.
My mom found out a few days later and told me that she understood that I was trying to be nice, but from that point on there was a rule against giving away presents. I loved rules that made it easy for me to say no to things I didn’t want to do anyway.
I’ve done countless things because I was too chicken to say no, from entering an unfinished class project into a school science fair (and then having to listen to several teachers tell me I should’ve given more effort) to working other people’s double shifts when they were hungover to letting a guy put his hands in my pants in 9th grade.
It’s not that I haven’t tried to fix this problem. I talked at length about it with a counselor at health services in college. I read Your Perfect Right by Robert Alberti & Michael Emmons. I’ve rehearsed assertive statements on my best friend and various therapists. I try to “know my rights” and what will make me feel taken advantage of. When I don’t want to do something or am unhappy with a situation, I come up with alternative suggestions or practice respectfully declining in my mind. But when it comes time to actually say the words (or text/email/etc) the words, I chicken out, unless I can come up with a reasonable excuse.
Trying to stand up for myself doesn’t just make me uncomfortable. Thinking about it makes me panic. It feels like something TERRIBLE will happen if I do it. People will say stuff like, “Just tell her you can’t. Say you’re busy or too tired, because you are.” And I’ll just think, “HOW???” Finding the words isn’t the problem. It feels like I am physically incapable of doing it. Every time I get close, tears fill my eyes and I get choked up. If someone asks me to do something over text and I make up an excuse, I end up feeling anxious and crappy. So a lot of times I do things I don’t want just to avoid feeling bad even when I could give an excuse/reason.
I’m guessing that this stems from a fear of other people being displeased with me. I also am uncomfortable with the people I love being unhappy, even if it’s not directed at/because of me. So I do what other people want (and what I perceive that they want) as much as possible because I am happier when they are happy.
Obviously, though, it’s more complicated than that. If I were completely satisfied doing what other people want, then assertiveness wouldn’t be an issue. I wouldn’t need to stand up for myself because I’d be perfectly fine doing others’ bidding all the time. But I’m not happy doing that. I want to do my own stuff sometimes.
I don’t think there’s a quick fix for this issue. I can go through the checklists on articles about assertiveness all I want. I still fall apart when the time comes. I think it’s going to be a complex process; I have to learn to be okay with people I care about possibly being displeased with me. I also have to get used to being assertive and see that it won’t cause the world to end.
If anyone has suggestions or can relate, feel free to comment.