How do I avoid being excessively deferential and go after what I want?
November 14, 2016 1:53 AM   Subscribe

I recently came to the conclusion that this is something I really need to work on. I’ve done ok in life — multiple degrees from top universities, a six-figure job and a seven-figure net worth in my 40s. But I’ve always been more cooperative, less willing to go after what I want, and looking back at this advanced age, it has hurt me.

The markers of my success have come in arenas where I did not have to go head-to-head with anyone. I studied and worked hard to please my teachers, and may have been sharp enough to go to medical school, but didn't have the cut-throat nature to eliminate my classmates.

I made much of my fortune investing, but I never had to actively take it from a client, or squeeze out a competitor.

I’m a lifelong athlete, but there have been as many instances of me winning as there have of me deciding to defer because the other guy wanted it more, and it didn’t mean so much to me. The times I have come out on top have been more because I wanted to test my limits than I wanted conquer the other guy.

This cooperative attitude has hurt me most in the romantic sphere. That’s one of my biggest failures, if you ask my parents! Still single.

My attitude has always been “there’ll be another, I didn’t want it anyway.” It's harmed me because I often expect to be granted, to be asked, and get resentful when I don’t, when I’m expected to demand and take — for instance, in the workplace, for raises and promotions.

I trace some of the origins of this disposition to being a physically small man and an Asian man in America. This society does not take a demanding nature from either of those populations well. Neither of those populations has anything to back up its ability to take what it wants. I think I am often afraid to go after what I want because of the other party's tendency towards retribution and vengeance.

I also know this is somewhat learned from my parents, and seeing them get over it has been good for both of them. My dad wanted to retire and move for years, but deferred to my mom, who was attached to a job she did not love. I finally convinced my dad to put his priorities first, my mom followed, and they’re both a lot happier because of it.

I know the world is full of demanding jerks, but at this age I’m also realizing that time is short, and I might as well be the one to get what I want. The world does not tend naturally towards justice, and the spoils often go to those who take it.

I also recently started competing again with an eye towards beating the other guy, and the hit of testosterone I got from that was refreshing and addictive.

To be clear, I’m not exactly a wallflower or a pushover. I will fight when I am wronged. But I am exceedingly laid back and cooperative, and I know this has hurt me, and I’d like to change that.

I hope going after what I want becomes habit-forming, but is there anything I should do, or consider, to help things along?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
If you feel the need to fight, fight for justice. Fight for something you believe in that's larger than yourself. Find a cause you believe in, sign up, go along to meetings, start organising. You could try running for local office. My father for example is volunteering for a local organisation that helps refugees. You could contact a group like the Souhern Poverty Law Centre or the ACLU and ask what you can do to help. As a physician you could volunteer for planned parenthood or join a group fighting against the repeal of the A.C.A. You will learn a lot about yourself and you'll learn to go after what you want. And you'll be doing good in the world rather than taking (and maybe you'll come to the view that you have enough "spoils" already). If the main problem is that you're single you could very well meet someone this way, too. Wishing you luck.
posted by hazyjane at 2:25 AM on November 14, 2016 [9 favorites]

You sound like a wonderful person, to be honest! I wonder if you're conflating getting what you want with necessarily having to compete against someone else. Obviously sometimes this is true (athletics), but even then, you compete against yourself. What if you tried to think about it that way? I.e., to go to medical school, you just have to be the best, forget what everyone else is doing. What do you want to be the best at? What do you want? Go for it, compete against yourself, even if it does involve other people also competing.
posted by heavenknows at 2:44 AM on November 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

What do you want? In no part of your question do you mention any concrete goals. Do you want a partner? (It sounds like your parents want one for you more than you do yourself.) Where do you want to get to with your athletics? (Is this shift from testing the limits of your body to beating others artificially self-imposed?) What kind of job and salary do you want? (What is going from a six figure job and a seven figure net worth to a seven figure job and an eight figure net worth going to do for you?)

It's hard to offer any solid advice. You haven't spelt out what you want out of your life, and you haven't even really clearly outlined what it is that's motivating you to change the status quo. It does sound like you've been the victim of past injustices, but it also sounds like you're dwelling on them and that's making you resentful and unhappy. I think you need to interrogate yourself, set some actual, specific goals, and pursue them looking forwards, not backwards.

Whatever happens, don't let your ambition cloud out the self-awareness that you clearly have in spades. Best of luck.
posted by Panthalassa at 3:00 AM on November 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

As hazyjane says, running for a local office might be an idea. A woman I was working with during this recent election said something apropos to your question here, that it was a transformative experience knocking on doors and directly asking people for their vote, face-to-face. She said that a helpful thing was that early on some good friends from out of state came to visit and campaign with her: she became more confident seeing people who knew her well ask for votes on her behalf.

P.S. Bravo for all of those conventional markers of success, btw!
posted by XMLicious at 3:07 AM on November 14, 2016

I'm a fairly polite and conflict-avoidant person, and I always had this idea that I'd be a better negotiator if I was a jerk (or, at least, more aggressive). However, on the rare occasions when I tried to put that idea into practice, it never worked out. It felt unnatural, and came across as unconvincing, and I was left with a bad taste afterwards.

Eventually, I read a book called Bargaining For Advantage and it completely changed the way I see negotiating. It turns out that being a good negotiator does not involve simply bulldozing the other person. In fact, negotiations involve a lot of skills that probably come more naturally to polite people, like listening carefully and putting yourself in the other person's shoes.

These are probably not new observations for any experienced negotiator but they were fairly revelatory for me. Now when I have to negotiate over something, I'm better equipped to make my calm personality into an advantage, rather than a disadvantage.

I think the book (or a similar one) might help you when it comes to negotiating raises and promotions. Your romantic life is another matter! From your question, I'm not quite sure how you feel your personality is holding you back, but I think there are two likely possibilities:

1. If you ask somebody out and they say "No," you don't try to argue them into saying "Yes."
2. You are reluctant to ask people out in the first place.

If it's 1, then you aren't failing at romance. You are succeeding at decency. The solution isn't to be an aggressive jerk to the people who say "No." It's just to ask more people out.

If it's 2, then that might be worth looking through the dating, relationships, and flirting tags on AskMe. You will have to do some hunting but I think there are a lot of variations on this question. It's an issue a lot of people face!
posted by yankeefog at 4:14 AM on November 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

This may be 100% projection on my part, but bear with me.

That thing that you're doing? Talking yourself out of what you want and not acknowledging your own feelings? It's not because you're Asian or small. It's because you were taught that. I'm Asian and I was taught that. I've got Asian kids, and let me tell you, they don't do that. There are many moments when they're misbehaving by being normal kids, and I consciously choose to make different choices than my parents did. To empathize and acknowledge their feelings while maintaining firm limits. To resist from shaming and to value their individuality. To help them feel heard, while simultaneously holding the line. To model respectful boundary setting.

I think this may be worth unpacking with a therapist. It helped me tremendously, and I'm so glad I did it before I had children.
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:25 AM on November 14, 2016 [14 favorites]

People do naturally tend toward justice and fairness, although this contends with the perception (frequently justified) that other people are only out for themselves.

Being totally self centered is also something people are taught -- our parents naturally want it for us if they think we won't survive otherwise -- but it is a soul-killing way to live, so people who are lucky enough to be educated a certain way (whether though religion, wise parents, or liberal arts faculty) focus on what they can do to help others.

There is a balance, but it's usually possible to make your life better without having to actually make others' worse.

As for "taking" a mate that someone else may want -- if the mate would be happier with you, then your competition is free to find someone who would be happier without you.

Perhaps what you seek is not self-centeredness, but courage.
posted by amtho at 4:41 AM on November 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

I know the world is full of demanding jerks

Yes. Please don't become one of them.

In all seriousness, you sound frustrated, trapped, and ready to lash out. As Panthalassa said, you may want to carefully consider what exactly you want to achieve with this transformation in character that you're seeking, and why. Taking and winning just for the sake of it, without regard to consequences, probably won't make you like or respect yourself more than you do now.
posted by as_night_falls at 7:07 AM on November 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you don't care about winning athletic competitions, I'm not seeing why that matters. For finessing raises and promotions, there is a lot of advice here and probably in the AskAManager blog that you could look to.

Reading the lines you wrote and between them, I feel like this is your main beef (maybe not so much your parents'):

This cooperative attitude has hurt me most in the romantic sphere. That’s one of my biggest failures, if you ask my parents! Still single.

And I feel like you're possibly veering into MRA / redpill territory to find a resolution to the problem.

Taking what you deserve/want/feel entitled to in the realm of career advancement, and any boosts you might get from a testosterone hit, are not in the least analogous or relevant to meeting someone compatible. This is Nice Guy-dom.

Self-confidence is attractive to most people, and putting yourself out there is essential, so do that if you're not, but "taking what you want", where "what" = women, is not a good place to go. It's objectifying and dehumanizing, for one thing.

You want a *partner* who accepts you as you are. You just have to work the odds to find them, keep dating. If you're feeling you're not as expressive as you could be, and that that's holding you back, by all means, work on that.

But the way you're looking at things currently is not going to be helpful. Say you do achieve max testosteronal status, and you find a woman amenable to domination. It's not going to lead to happiness. It's going to be empty, a sham, and painful, too. Just say no to this whole stream of thinking, man.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:38 AM on November 14, 2016 [11 favorites]

The markers of my success

Forget "markers of success". What do you actually want? If you like being cooperative, that's awesome. That combined with your stable life makes you a dream match for a lot of people.

If you're angry or resentful, underneath it all, then that's an obstacle, both to creative problem solving and to being able to be close to another human. Which speaks to your original question, but may help focus a bit more on how to actually work through it.
posted by amtho at 9:19 AM on November 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Wanted to briefly elaborate on why I think a relationship established the redpill way would be unsatisfying for you, and not just the putative partner. (A lot of this articulation comes from Jessica Benjamin's Bonds of Love, or what I can remember of it. But I've seen and experienced it, as well. It'll be a blend of both.) The following is a nightmare scenario that assumes you can actually successfully mimic the postures of domination you admire right now. (Which I'm not totally sure you can, if your instincts run in the opposite direction. But I thought I'd present it anyway. In case you want to give acting a try, and turn out to be good enough to train yourself into the role.)

If you bully or manipulate someone into acquiescing to a demand for affection or attention, what you have is someone who is vulnerable enough to be manipulated or bullied.

If you despise what you see as "weakness" in yourself, you won't respect it when you see it in someone else. The temptation to push boundaries will be strong, especially if someone yields (out of habit, vulnerability, or fear). The more they yield, the more contemptible they may seem to you. The more regularly this perception comes to you, the less you'll care for them, and the angrier you'll be. At them, for weakness - and in the moments when you feel empathy for them, and recognize how you've manipulated them, anger at yourself, for behaving like what you've thought all your life was a bad person. Anger at them, again, when they remind you of it. No one feels at peace, this way. It's a torment on both sides. No one feels less alone, more connected, loved.

You might tire of her, and want to move on - to the same unsatisfying dynamic elsewhere. (If you marry, you might feel stuck. More anger, guilt, self-hate, hate for her, with this feeling of being trapped. Especially if you have things to lose.)

The things people like about relationships are: feeling accepted, loved, recognized, appreciated. Having someone to talk, laugh, plan, remember with. Someone with whom you could share the burdens of life, happy things, too. That doesn't happen by force.
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:53 PM on November 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

Echoing others here: you have not stated what you actually want yet, other than believing this idea that you find yourself lacking in some way and the solution is to be more aggressive or assertive. But for what goal? There are different routes to different goals; some specificity would help us help you.
posted by neeta at 3:30 PM on November 14, 2016

The world does not tend naturally towards justice, and the spoils often go to those who take it.

Um... You have a six figure job.

And I guarantee you that if you're not coupled up, it's not because you didn't sabotage your colleagues in med school.

What are these "spoils?"

What more do you want?

Yeah, if you'd been born 500 years ago, maybe you wouldn't have been the type of person to own literal slaves. Yeah, maybe if you'd gotten in on some really disgusting human rights violating schemes, you could have owned shares in some third world factory by now.

Is this what we're talking about? Or smaller versions of that, to make more money?

You're clearly an educated person, and from what you say, you're skilled and lucky enough to have been ridiculously successful without hurting anyone. Maybe think about that for a bit?
posted by benadryl at 8:41 PM on November 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Maybe it will help to think of these situations as not backing down. The medical school situation? There, you're not be "eliminating" other students. You're doing your best work, standing up for it, and letting the chips fall where they may, just like everyone else.

In salary negotiations, you are not trying to hurt anyone. Assuming you are working for a company that does pay higher salaries than yours and can afford to do so, you're getting what you can from a company that would otherwise just hold onto it while you can because companies fire people for any or no reason. And hopefully, you are paying it forward to people that aren't as lucky to be in that position.

As for love, as many have said, you cannot "take" a woman by winning a contest with another man. Women are people, not the sprite at the end of Double Dragon.

However, if you are not like that and are in fact talking about the behavior in which dudes or ladies automatically clear the field simply because someone else may be interested in the person they're interested in, then yes, you should stop that. Let your person of interest tell you she's not interested — and respect that! — not some other person who's also interested. You are as valid a choice, until you're told otherwise.

This is another form of standing up for yourself.
posted by ignignokt at 8:50 PM on November 14, 2016

I empathize. I am a physically small Asian woman and I would say I have been socialized in a similar way. Society is very unwilling to countenance an Angry Asian Woman and those who do assert themselves end up being called tiger moms and dragon ladies. I personally also lean towards harmony and cooperation to the point of seeming passive, but I have also struggled with these expectations of deference because it also seemed to involve this constant suppression of self. Exhausting.

Deferring is such a central cultural value in many Asian cultures, and think in certain contexts (like interacting with your parents), this works really well-- you are sensitive to what others are thinking without them having to make it explicit. But, as you are realizing now, there is value in establishing clear boundaries and in not only knowing what you want, but more specifically, actually believing that what you want, and the fact that you have wants, matters in your decision-making process and subsequent actions. For example, I know that if my household is trying to make a decision, what I want ... doesn't really factor in heavily into their ultimate decision. But this is not necessarily the case in my friendships or workplace relationships. It's hard to switch between these contexts.

Some suggestions/thoughts: I've worked on this a little bit by interacting with customer service people when the opportunity arises-- trying to return or exchange an item, or argue to get the right price on a telephone bill.

Taking time each day or week to reflect on what my specific needs are (separate from the interpersonal context) has also been helpful-- my tendency is to dismiss or even bury my wants and needs when interacting with others in real-time. The practice of articulating these needs makes them feel more real, which makes it easier for me to assert myself so that I can get those needs and wants met. Sometimes, I frame it in the perspective of "I need to take care of myself first so that I can be there for others." Other times, I tell myself that I am going to value my personal happiness.

I've mentioned this here in the past, but one of my friends (an Asian male) said that he found that his interactions in a white-dominated workplace changed noticeably and positively when he explicitly adopted the mantra, "what would a white person do?" In many cases, I imagine it would mean more acting and less reacting.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 9:02 PM on November 14, 2016 [7 favorites]

I'm personally not seeing how failing to be a "demanding jerk" has set you back significantly. In the initial part of your post you clearly state how wildly successful you are both financially and career-wise. Not everyone can place themselves so confidently in those categories. What I do read in this post is not a desire to "dominate" others but rather to CONNECT with others. The last thing we need in the country now is another testosterone-fueled desire to take down our neighbors.
posted by ponderosa at 11:48 PM on November 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

I don't know if this is true for you, but I also think that part of what may have held me back in the past is the threshold at which I deem my (merely assertive) behavior to be that of a "demanding jerk."
posted by gemutlichkeit at 5:23 AM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest reading When I Say No, I Feel Guilty, by Manuel Smith.
posted by russilwvong at 8:40 AM on November 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

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