Out of all the relationship questions that I get, the most common have to be those that deal in assertiveness and standing up for yourself. Even though we love and trust our partners more than anyone else in the world, most of us struggle to be emotionally honest with them. Standing up for ourselves or not “going with the flow” in the slightest way can feel like a crime. But why? Why is it so hard for us to just say how we feel to the people that we care for?
Why assertiveness is a problem for you.
Are you someone who struggles with assertiveness? Do you believe in never telling your partner “no”? Do you go out of your way to accommodate them, even when it makes you feel bad? No matter how much we love our partners, we still have to learn how to stand up to them when our needs are on the line. If you struggle with this, it’s not by accident. Your hesitation comes from your history and the lessons that lie there.
Your parents taught you to be quiet
Were you allowed you express yourself freely as a child? Our ability (or lack of ability) to communicate and defend our needs comes from the lessons of childhood. The role of parents is to teach their children how to create and defend healthy boundaries. That doesn’t always happen, though. If speaking up for yourself was met with shouting, anger, punishment, or ridicule from your parents — then odds are they taught you to be quiet in your adult relationships.
You’re uncomfortable with conflict
To an extent, being assertive has to come with a natural willingness to embrace conflict. Depending on the quality of the people around you, standing up for yourself can be met with resistance. It’s not always convenient to be told no, and toxic partners and friends will reflect that. If that describes the types of relationships in your life, then you (rightfully) expect that standing up for yourself will always result in conflict. Being uncomfortable with conflict, though, you’ll avoid it every time and put your happiness on the back-burner.
You pick unstable partnerships
Do you regularly commit to unstable partnerships? This can be both a learned behavior and a form of self-sabotage, which results from low self-esteem or the belief that you aren’t worthy of happiness and love. The longer you invest in these toxic types of relationships, the more negative your view of self and partnership becomes. If you keep yourself trapped in these patterns, you can find yourself developing an apathetic approach to life that makes it hard to speak up for yourself when it matters.
You’ve got a volatile history with love
Those with a volatile history of love often struggle to stand up for themselves in meaningful ways. Poor relationships teach us it’s not safe to stick up for ourselves. Maybe you had an abusive partner that exploded with violence any time you told them “no”. Perhaps so many spouses or loved ones cheated on you you believe erasing yourself is the only way to keep them around. These experiences come together to discourage our honesty and authenticity in strange ways.
You hold societal standards in high regard
In some societies and social circles, we encourage partners to adhere to patterns that are more practical than healthy. For example, some are encouraged to hold their tongue when their partners mistreat them or misbehave. We approach this as both a matter of respect and a matter of honor, but what it truly does it facilitate partnerships in which one person feels inferior, trapped, or disallowed from speaking their feelings. When you hold societal standards in higher regard than your authenticity, it can lead to a lack of assertiveness as it regards your needs.
How to establish healthy assertiveness in your relationships.
In my new book — Relationship Renovator — I dig into relationship assertiveness and some of the best ways we can cultivate it for ourselves. We can’t be happy with ourselves (or our partners) if we don’t find the backbone to say “no” when it really matters. Without this assertiveness, we leave ourselves at risk of being taken advantage of. Minimize the risk by prioritizing your desire to stick up for your needs and desires in every circumstance.
1. First, you have to figure out who you are. How are you going to stand up for yourself if you don’t know what you want? The more confident you are in yourself, the stronger you become.
The first step in getting assertive takes getting real about what you want to do(and what you don’t). You have to be honest about who you are and what you want from this life, and you have to start building up the awareness you need to tap into your inner confidence. This takes spending time with yourself, and digging deep into the meat of who you are, and doing so on a regular basis.
A mindful journalling practice is a great place to start when it comes to getting in touch with our inner desires and emotions. Find a quiet space where you’ll be uninterrupted, and spend a few minutes each day asking yourself the important questions like, “What do you want to have accomplished by the end of it all?” and “What really matters to you?” Record your answers honestly, as they come, and don’t shy away from the truth they show you.
Only when we intimately get to know ourselves, and start recognizing the things that bring us happiness and the things that don’t, can we learn how to start forming the boundaries that will one day constitute the outer measures of our joy. Get real about what you actually want and what you don’t want in your environment. Be honest about your emotions, and be honest about the things you need in order to feel as though you are thriving…
2. With a clear sense of self (and needs) to hand, you can then take strides to say “no” more openly and more often. This is how we set boundaries and protect our peace of mind.
…If we truly want to create a life that is entirely our own, we have to get comfortable with the word “no” and we have to start incorporating it into our day-to-day life. No isn’t a negative word. It’s a protective word, and it’s one that can make us both safe and strong in who we are and what we want from this one life we have.
Saying no to things you don’t have time for or things you don’t want to do is an issue for a lot of people. Still, it’s one of the most important life skills we can master. Turning down things you don’t feel equipped to cope with or things you just don’t have time for isn’t rude or stubborn — it’s self-care and the sign of a strong person.
If you learn to say no, you’ll find your perceptions changing entirely and before long you’ll see “no” as a positive, not a negative. Turning down the things that don’t suit us, or the opportunities that detract from, more than add to, our lives makes us stronger and makes our living more beautiful for the experience. A world of “yes” equals a world of exhaustion. Say “no” when it suits, and get the time and space you need when you need it…
3. Lastly, create boundaries you feel good sticking up for. Our boundaries are attached to our happiness, our expectations, and our security. Figure out those things, and you find yourself with limits you don’t mind sticking up for in any relationship.
Toxic people are all around us, just waiting to take advantage, so it’s imperative that you learn how to manage these relationships in a way that protects our hearts and our emotions. This starts by setting boundaries and sticking to those boundaries even when things get hard or uncomfortable.
Let those around you know what behaviors you will and will not tolerate moving forward. Have an honest and open conversation and be frank about what you need and how your parent’s actions make you feel. Setting boundaries is important in any relationship, but they’re especially important when we’re stuck in a one-sided relationship with caregivers we can’t escape.
Set boundaries in the moment and make it clear that you’ll no longer tolerate any behavior that is not in line with who you are and what you need. You can say things like “I appreciate you inviting me to Christmas, but I need you to send me these invitations sooner. Sorry. I’ve made other plans.” Stand firm in what you need and stand firm in the knowledge that you have a right to need what you need, and want what you want. We all have different journeys in this life, but we all have our limits too…
Putting it all together…
Assertiveness is a crucial part of building stable and fulfilling relationships, but so many of us have such a toxic connection to love that we struggle to stand up for ourselves. From a tortured childhood history, to past relationships full of upset and pain, we are taught to put our needs on the back-burner, but that can’t last. If we want to be happy in our love for others, we have to learn to stand up for ourselves by accepting who we are, saying “no” more often, and setting boundaries that are worth fighting for. Are you protecting your needs in your intimate relationships? If not, this is your time. Now is the moment to start standing up for yourself in life and in love.
- Johnson, E. (2021). Relationship Renovator: Transforming Your Love Life from the Ground Up. London, UK: Independently Published.