When I was in fifth grade, my “boyfriend” gave me his soccer photo. It was love at first sight. He was cute, athletic, and had a last name that fit nicely with my first (in other words, I could marry him!). However, our relationship lasted only a few weeks. It came to an abrupt and icy end when I refused to let him kiss me while we were at the movies on a double date. I not only refused, I got sick to my stomach! The next school day, it was clear I was no longer wanted. My ten year old self was devastated.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of my relationship history. Unfortunately, it did change my relationship dynamics for decades to come. In middle school, high school, college, grad school, and beyond, I was known by my partners for being “nice”, “sweet”, and “so giving”.
It wasn’t until ten years ago, following my divorce and at the start of my journey to recovery from Binge-Eating Disorder, that I realized that “nice” was synonymous with “agreeable” which was synonymous with “conflict avoidant”. It all started to make sense. In fifth grade, I said “no” and lost a friend. After that, I avoided conflict at all costs. I never pushed back or disagreed. I adopted the interests of my partner. I sacrificed my own desires in order to satisfy my partner’s. I easily forgave injustices. I ignored emotional abuse. I said “yes” to sexual requests even when I didn’t want to. I did whatever it would take to avoid conflict. I did so because I couldn’t tolerate the potential consequences of saying “no” or disagreeing or individuating. I wanted to be liked. I didn’t want to evoke anger, or disappoint someone, or risk rejection.
But, in 2006, I found my voice. My counselor at the time introduced me to a book called, Your Perfect Right: A Guide to Assertive Living. The book was instrumental in helping me recognize my right to assert my feelings and needs. Developing assertiveness became a major step in my recovery from Binge-Eating Disorder. I began by practicing with my inner critic, pushing back against its demands that I restrict calories and countering its negativity with positive self-talk. Over time, that became easier. As my body image and self-esteem improved, I learned to say, “I am okay” even if someone is mad at me, doesn’t agree with me, or chooses to no longer be my friend.
And with some additional help over the years, I’ve explored my underlying beliefs about conflict and learned skills to help me better tolerate anger (my own and others’). My work is not over. I still fall back into conflict avoidant behavior at times. I still struggle to feel and express my anger. But I know I have a right to assert myself. In fact, I have a responsibility to do so in order to develop and maintain healthy relationships.
If you’re struggling with assertiveness, consider talking to a professional or checking out the following resources:
Peace, joy, and health,