How do I learn to stand up for myself?
December 15, 2012 3:23 PM   Subscribe

How do I become more assertive without being rude and stick up for myself?

I honestly think I'm just too nice of a person. I consider myself a very empathetic person. I have self-esteem/confidence issues so it's hard for me to become assertive without feeling paranoid about being rude. I've been known to bottle up a lot of emotion inside of me until I explode with anger. I don't directly insult people when I do but it's clear to me that I can lose control of my feelings. I do NOT have any violent tendencies or anything so you can't dismiss that. It also doesn't help that I'm in a social rut and I've been pretty lonely the past few months.

A few recent situations have shed light on this issue for me. Just recently, I found out that two co-workers of mine tried having me demoted. I won't get into specific details but my supervisor informed me of this because he thought it was uncalled for and felt I had to know. I feel like I should have noticed or took caution from condescending remarks they would make to me. Instead of feeling like I was being treated rudely, I simply blamed myself and thought I wasn't being nice enough. Having my attention brought to this confirmed that I'm just simply too nice. It worries me that someone could easily take advantage of me.

I just don't know the proper way to act when I feel like someone is making back-handed comments. I hate it when I feel like I'm genuinely hurt by someone and my only two reactions are - overreacting and becoming very upset (yelling) or disregarding the hurt and bottling it up. I understand that there are times where you have to pick your battles, but I feel like I don't pick any at all.

TL;DR: I want to learn how to stand up for myself and let someone know what they've done was rude. Are there any books or exercises that can point me in the right direction?

I'm sorry if this question seems muddled or unclear, I'll respond with details if needed. Also, I'd like to say that I am going to pursue therapy ASAP. Thank you
posted by morning_television to Human Relations (13 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
You're not too nice, you're too inclined to do things that make other people happy (or that you think will make them happy or that you think they want or expect) and disinclined to act in accordance your own interests, feelings and wants as a matter of course. Which is not the same as being childish or self-centered.

The best way to really get at the root of this kind of problem, in my opinion, is to find ways to get more in touch with your true feelings, or more specifically what you're feeling in the moment (any moment). You're very much of in control of your feelings, excessively so, but you're also probably disused to being aware of your feelings because you need external, social cues to consciously feel and express them. Start by thinking deeply about your own authentic needs and impulses, no matter how you evaluate their okay-ness, and learn to accept them even if you feel like they're wrong or inappropriate so that you can become more cognitively and psychologically open to experiencing the things you're feeling under the surface.

Don't just pursue therapy. Make sure you get it with someone who works well with you. Good luck!
posted by clockzero at 3:35 PM on December 15, 2012 [11 favorites]

Just one more thing: think back to your childhood, because this kind of emotional pattern often has deep roots. Did one or both of your parents behave in a way that implicitly or explicitly indicated that their feelings were more important than yours, or was there some other important relational dynamic that reinforced that model? We learn that kind of lesson about the value of our own feelings very early in a lot of cases.
posted by clockzero at 3:37 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am exactly like you in this regard. I was raised to be very polite and never to inflict myself on others unbidden. The only thing that has helped me that I can recommend is when someone treats you poorly, you need to react right then and there, even if it's just a look you give them. Do it calmly and politely but let it be known you won't take shit. Give people the benefit of the doubt the first time but no more making excuses for them or turning the blame on yourself for other people being jerks.
posted by Jess the Mess at 3:54 PM on December 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Hmm. I grew up in a large family. I don't recall my parents ever acting like that. I was often harshly teased by older siblings when I was little and somewhat teased as school also. I was very emotionally withdrawn and quiet up until high school. What you've said makes a lot of sense though. Not sure if what I stated has any correlation to it, though.
posted by morning_television at 3:55 PM on December 15, 2012

I think some insecure bullies tend to notice vulnerability or shyness (or even what they deem "seriousness") and go after you/pick on you. It's a power trip that makes them feel better. The more confidence you show in your actions, the less they tend to target you.

One thing that worked when being picked on in junior high was to learn ways to create humor, that, while wasn't *mean*, was confident. Sometimes if people realize they can relate to you, they ease up on the remarks, and even respect you. (You don't have to like them after, but they might get off your back.) I'm not sure what these condescending remarks are, but when I was in junior high, a guy I sat next to kept telling me "You have big teeth." This upset me highly and I never knew what to say. My dad suggested a comeback, "You have little teeth." It was so goofy, and so inverted the insult, that the next time I used it, the bully started laughing, agreed, and stopped doing it altogether. He even became friendly. Find ways to see the situation differently.

Chances are, they know they're being rude or overstepping their bounds. Take a breath, pause, see them like the children they are. As others have said, give them the benefit of the doubt if you're not sure whether they're being insulting. That means, "Could what they said be taken in a non-insulting way? What are all the reasons why they might have said this? Could it have nothing to do with me?" Don't beat yourself up.

For most people, they aren't constantly on their guard, waiting with the perfect comeback. I don't quite understand how co-workers could "have you demoted." Did they say your performance was less than adequate? Did they lie about something? Did they have the misguided belief that they were helping the company, and it was really nothing personal?

There's not a lot you can do after the fact but keep your eyes open and be prepared for any further backhanded stuff. I wouldn't really chase after them and tell them they were being rude. Maybe their failed attempt will stop them in their tracks permanently. Or maybe they will try another route.

Be like the detective trying to piece this confusing situation together. If you should get further comments directly, I might say something like, "That's not cool, guys. What are you trying to do?" Ask them questions, confidently. Figure out why they're behaving this way. The better you understand them, the better you can respond. They may not even know themselves why they're doing it... And don't feel the need to cater to any demands they're making either.

Between your two stated options, becoming enraged and bottling, choose neither. You will react disproportionately to the next situation if you do these. There is a third option, and that is genuinely letting go... This gives you the calm and strength to react from any point without prior negative experiences holding you back. For learning this difficult task, I recommend The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.
posted by iadacanavon at 4:49 PM on December 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Put them on the spot. This will show the backbone they assume you lack without being rude. If they make a condescending or back-handed remark, ask, "Why would you even say that?" like they've said the dumbest or most ridiculous thing in the world. If they insist on trying to evade, pin them down. Why are they saying these things? What are they trying to accomplish? Don't blow up or overreact, just work them over with questions like you are genuinely trying to figure out their behavior--which you actually are--and are puzzled why they'd do such a thing. Most people don't want to explain their behavior, especially when they're being dicks, and will get embarrassed enough to back off after a few interrogations.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 5:04 PM on December 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Book recommendations: The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work and Crucial Confrontations.

If you're receiving back-handed comments, try "Please repeat that" or "That's a really obnoxious thing to say."

I've done a lot of personal work on getting better at the sort of problem you're talking about. I caught myself rationalizing my lack of speaking up with thoughts along the lines of, "I guess it's not that big of a deal, I'll just keep quiet about it." Now my mantra is, "If it's not a big deal for the other person to do x, it's not a big deal for me to call them out on it." (And if they can't handle the conversation, then that means it's very, very important indeed to make my position known and assert boundaries.)

Another thing I've noticed is that the more confrontations I'm involved with, the better I am at predicting how future ones will go. In fact, when you look at one personality trait that was part of the "problem" to begin with--thinking a lot about how others would respond to my actions, which used to result in timidity and second-guessing myself--it turns out that that's a great personality trait to have in my newer, more assertive mindset, because I'm able to predict what people are going to do in response when I'm asserting myself, plan things better, and prepare for stressful moments where it's important to stay cool, while their failure to have my feelings on their radar means they get caught by surprise, acting childish, sometimes apologizing later, but generally "losing" if they decide to stick with the adversarial angle instead of making nice.
posted by alphanerd at 5:15 PM on December 15, 2012 [8 favorites]

I work with someone like that, I have for almost 10 years and their behavior has never changed so I don't ever expect it to. I just accept that they are a person that treats others horribly and expect them to be that way. For the most part, I stay out of their way when I can and let them sabotage themselves with their horrible attitude.

I do my job, do it well and I am rewarded for that. Part of my job involves teamwork with this difficult person, I do my end of the work well and document it clearly when things are handed off to them or clearly communicate what I have done and what is left for them to do in a way that is documented. When their behavior does affect me or our work together, I have found that not getting emotional is the best way to shut down any petty drama.

If you must defend yourself, state the facts and only the facts and try as hard as you can to not get angry or emotional. Don't let people say things that are untrue about you or undercut you but deal with it in a non-emotional way that shows that you smart/sane/classy and that they are the unstable/petty/trashy.

At least, that has worked for me. I have found that when I do back myself up and stay unemotional and don't let it eat at me, it shuts down the petty backstabber in my office but it doesn't change who they are and how they'll always behave.

If you feel you are being bullied, try to keep a record of it and talk to your manager if you can. Sounds like they are aware of the other employees' bad attitude already.
posted by dottiechang at 5:18 PM on December 15, 2012

I'm going to assume that you are pulling your weight at your workplace and your boss likes you which is why he told you about your coworkers' shenanigans. Don't take on all the blame for being too "nice" here. Normal, non-toxic people don't try to get their coworkers demoted unless that coworker is a real PITA. These people are toxic, and it's good that you are onto their game. But you didn't cause them to try to backstab you.

The advice given here about assertiveness is great; you also want to re-calibrate your sense of "normal" so you don't think that this is normal coworker behavior. Normal people don't go out of their way to be cruel to one another; part of building up one's assertiveness and boundaries is giving up the idea that shabby treatment is normal. This kind of behavior should ping your spidey sense that either these people are toxic or your workplace is toxic or both. (I'm assuming, again, that you show up on time, do your work, and are pleasant to be around. If you are all these, then you are a good worker.)
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:19 PM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was often harshly teased by older siblings when I was little and somewhat teased as school also. I was very emotionally withdrawn and quiet up until high school. What you've said makes a lot of sense though. Not sure if what I stated has any correlation to it, though.

I was also bullied in school, and I also was someone who had trouble standing up for myself. I still am.

There is ABSO-FUCKING-LUTELY a correlation between the two.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:54 PM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Therapy was the thing that helped me with this, so I'm glad you're going. If you're like me, it won't happen quickly - you've spent years getting to this point, so the fixes will take time, too. A lot of it seemed pretty tangential, too, so be patient. Yes, my therapist and I would go over specific interactions that bothered me and talk about how I might handle them differently. But a lot of the things that helped were also not as obvious as that, and I sometimes found talking about those closest to me hardest (family? what would that have to do with how we act?).

Just being aware of your own emotions instead of trying to tamp them down until they boil over will be a Huge step. Hey, and in the meantime, take heart from the fact that at least your boss knows you're good at what you do!
posted by ldthomps at 7:11 PM on December 15, 2012

If you call someone out for being rude to you, it is not rude. For instance, if someone says something that is mean and you don't like it, just say so. Say something like, "I'm sorry but I don't appreciate that comment. Please stop. Thank you." That way, you aren't yelling or picking up a battle. You are letting them know what you consider to be appropriate behaviour and if they respect you, they will oblige.
posted by madsy at 8:19 PM on December 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've been reading this book called Your Perfect Right which deals with this exact topic. You may find it helpful.
posted by girlmightlive at 10:24 AM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

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