How NOT to be a doormat?
January 25, 2020 7:01 AM   Subscribe

I have been a doormat my entire adult life and it is starting to cause me serious problems and anxiety. Those of you who have learned to be more assertive, how did you do it? What process did you go through with yourself? For those of you who have always been assertive, how do you do it?

Unfortunately my mother was the biggest doormat ever and she taught me to always be nice to people and I have never learned how to stand up for myself. Subconsiously I think there was a lack of self esteem there that I have just kind of absorbed. In some ways I have massively improved, I am pretty assertive in my marriage now so I can be very proud of that.

HOWEVER, I am consistently having the same issues in some other intrapersonal relationships and the same thing is happening over and over and over. I become to friendly with people who are doing things for me, like babysitting or cleaning or giving my kids lessons. I guess I feel a little guilty or I feel and act like people are doing me a favor, when I am actually paying them for a service. Today, for example, I took my child to a lesson and the teacher showed up late and was unprepared and she used our lesson to kind of catch up her time and I didn't say anything... Earlier in the week we had agreed a lesson and she was 15 minutes late, and unprepared and I ended up being late for my kids preschool. These things don't start off this way, but I feel like once I come across as a push over then I can never get things back on track.

Other times with a previous babysitter I was too friendly and wasn't assertive about her punctuality and eventually she was showing up 10-15 minutes late every time and then chatting with me in the kitchen the last half hour. This happens in almost every scenario and its been going on a long time.

I suppose the WORST time this has happened in recent memory was with with some previous childcare professionals in a private preschool setting... I feel I subconsiously went in there with a low self esteem about myself and automatically placed their opinions and ideas above my own and in that situation I ended up in a very yucky feeling dynamic where I was being called into meetings about my child and not being listened to and I really feel I had no control and it was to the detriment of my child's well being and it was exremely traumatic and I felt so so so disrespected.

My kids will be starting at a new school in September and I really want to change this part of myself so that I am going into that school as a confident and assertive mother who is sucessful in dealing with people. I have anxiety about this. I am really tired of being and acting this way.

I love scripts and things I can memorize and practice, so those are REALLY welcome. And any other answer or advice.
posted by catspajammies to Human Relations (18 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I should just add that my kids have very mild special needs and some sensory issues, so I guess to start my self esteem as a parent was a little low- just because it was so difficult at first. I also feel like we kind of stick out as a little bit different? Plus this means we are in contact with a lot of therapists and some of those relationships are fine, but I will be meeting so many more people in the future as my kids get older, I want to be a good advocate for them.
posted by catspajammies at 7:08 AM on January 25

I think it takes practice, and you will feel more comfortable the more times you try expressing your needs. But weirdly, what helped me be more assertive at one job was getting a little stronger through pushups and yoga- it made me feel more confident.
posted by pinochiette at 7:37 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]

This is not necessarily the best answer - or the best one for you. But there is a third way.

1. be a doormat
2. be assertive
3. be more careful who you get into relationships with, and much quicker to dump relationships with people who take advantage.

Obviously, #3 doesn't work for people you're stuck with (e.g. family and work colleagues). But with all others, you can deem your natural characteristics to be a filter. You offer the "bait" of your kindness/generosity/vulnerability, and those who don't take it are worth your time. You've filtered the field. Hey, not everyone deserves you.

When I'm thinking of hiring a new contractor for a big home improvement job, I'll ask him to do a very small (pretty much handyman-ish) job, and afford an opportunity for him to take advantage of me (meanwhile, I also get to eyeball his work and work habits - Is he thorough? does he clean up well?). If he takes the bait, good for him; he scores a few bucks. But I save more by having filtered him. This also works in social relationships. It's a bit detached, but [MR.ROGERS]sometimes being a grownup means being a little bit detached.[/MR.ROGERS]
posted by Quisp Lover at 7:52 AM on January 25 [17 favorites]

Problem with my suggestion above is that it really prunes your potential network. OTOH, if this is how things go for you, you might not be someone who, sum-total, benefits from a wide network.
posted by Quisp Lover at 7:58 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]

It’s normal and understandable to start off being accommodating, even to excuse some lateness repeatedly, but then to get fed up about it. You shouldn’t feel like being kind and chatty with someone means you can’t later have a conversation with that person about being respectful of your time, or that their lateness is your fault because you weren’t stern with them all along. If it happens again, you can pull the person aside and say “We love getting lessons from you / Kid loves having you babysit, but you’ve been really late the last few times you’ve come here. It’s important to me that you get here on time because [your rate is for the full hour / it complicates my schedule and makes me late / whatever other negative impact]. If it continues being an issue then I might have to reconsider the lessons and I don’t want to do that because Kid loves you!”

This also sounds like a little bit of an anxiety issue in that you may be overestimating how difficult it will be for these other people to get negative feedback from you—which also makes you feel like the conversation is an intense confrontation, not a casual talk. These people are in business for themselves, so they are probably used to getting feedback and reviews and won’t be upset.

But one caution - is your worry about being a doormat turning something that is only a small problem into a big problem? For example, if the piano teacher arrives 15 minutes late but stays 15 minutes late, does that cause an actual problem for you, or is it more than it makes you anxious that you might be a doormat? I hate lateness but I’ve learned over the years that it’s only worth complaining about if it actually causes negative effects—most of the time it just makes me angry because I feel disrespected, and that’s more about me and not about whatever external factor was causing the person to be late.
posted by sallybrown at 8:01 AM on January 25 [13 favorites]

I've had two therapists tell me I need to work on asking for what I want/need from a situation. When I think about why I'm avoiding asking, it has to do with being concerned that I don't naturally know how to ask in a way that won't start a confrontation or come off as accusatory, etc. So instead I swallow what I want to say and resent it. It sounds like you might be in a similar situation? I only recently came to this realization as to why I was censoring myself, you might also think a bit about why you are avoiding saying something in these situations.

What's helped me tremendously has been working with my therapist on situational scripts such as the one sallybrown offered, and then practicing them ahead of when I want to see them.We talk a lot on metafilter about establishing boundaries, but the skills to do that are very much muscles you have to develop.
posted by snowymorninblues at 8:08 AM on January 25 [4 favorites]

I used to be like that. I read this book - Nonviolent Communication - and it gave me frameworks and scripts for communicating my needs. Lo and behold, I get my needs [mostly] met now!
posted by MonsieurBon at 8:54 AM on January 25 [5 favorites]

There are probably people who might describe me as a doormat. I'm a bit too quick to let certain things slide, and if you want, you can exploit that. For a while. In the long term though, I don't feel taken advantage of a lot, because I'm pretty good at keeping that sort of person at arm's length as soon as I notice the tendency. I don't necessarily cut them out of my life immediately - as someone mentionned above that's a recipe for ending up with a pretty small circle pretty quickly; also there's always the possibility of being too quick to judge - but I adjust my expectations and crucially, also my investment, minimize interactions and start looking for alternative sources of whatever benefit they might provide.

That's not always the best strategy. It's certainly better to have a frank conversation with the piano teacher about the need for punctuality than to immediately start looking for new one, if that's the only issue. But I feel it's good for me to know that the option is there. Because at the end of the day, I rarely find it hard to disentangle myself. I'm not lenient, because I desperately need any specific person to like me. I'm lenient, because I would like to be given a certain margin of error myself, and I would find it hypocritical not to be. More often than not, it evens out - a friend might have trouble being on time and often leave me waiting, but in return, they're not holding it against me when I cancel last minute. The moment, when I decide to write someone off is usually when I find they are less willing to indulge me than I'm willing to indulge them.

Also, I'm lenient, because it's sometimes just more convenient. Because not every confrontation is worth the hassle. And I think that's justified too. Sometimes you have to pick your battles. Please, don't beat yourself up about "letting others disrespect you", when you decide not to pick a particular battle - it's not always a referenderum on your self-respect if you decide to disengage - sometimes, that's just being pragamatic and economical about your energies. It's okay to do a bit of a cost/benefit analysis.

But I do really believe everyone should have some hills they'd be willing to die on, and you might feel better if you are very clear about what those are for you.
posted by sohalt at 9:17 AM on January 25 [7 favorites]

A huge reframe for me was understanding that clear boundaries and explicit statement of expectations is a gift you can give other people so they don't have the anxiety of guessing or making assumptions they later find out is wrong. And if you're operating under that assumption up front, it makes it a lot easier a) when you do have to apply a little extra pressure to push back against people who are looking for opportunities to take advantage, or b) when your boundaries and expectations are in conflict with someone else's and everyone has to negotiate.

I honestly find that just having higher standards for clarity will solve many of the low-lying problems that can otherwise snowball into boundary violations or just plain mismatches in expectations vs reality. I think the biggest psychological leap you have to make, overall, is to understand that you are entitled to information, asking questions is not aggression or "being demanding", and at the end of the day that it is not fatal if someone gets irritated with you or doesn't like your boundary. Yes, it requires negotiation if that someone is close to you, but you don't have to be adored by everyone you cross paths with.

This is a muscle you have to exercise to get good at it, but to start with you absolutely get multiple chances to course-correct. It is fine to couch your initial attempts to do so as a team effort (which it may need to be! many things in life are!) to see if that is enough to tackle the problem. "I've noticed a couple of times now that we've started quite late and you were rushing to catch up, do we need to change the schedule for our Thursday lesson or is that something we can otherwise work together to correct?" "Hey, our start time here has crept to the point that I can't get where I need to be, is it going to be possible for you to be here BY 9:00 at the latest going forward?"

Another advantage to the "we" approach is that maybe the other person truly does need help or a change in plans and is too overwhelmed or afraid to ask. We all take our turns being the one who's not really meeting requirements and not knowing what to say, and it can be a little embarrassing to call it out or get called out, but treat it like problem solving, not like you're making some kind of monumental request.

When you're dealing with people who may or may not be experts, call on their expertise by asking questions until you understand. "Can you help me understand better what it means when you say X?" "If you use Y intervention in the future, what's the whole flowchart of that process look like, can you walk me through an example?" When you don't feel listened to, say so. Not just once, any time it happens. Say out loud that you are confused or frustrated because you are saying X and it feels like they are hearing Y. Use words, make people use words.

There are workbooks with exercises for self esteem, and therapeutic treatments. Now would be a great time to start trying some, for your own benefit and your child's, so that that at least isn't a thing in your way. There's always going to be people out there who are difficult or flaky or actively trying to steamroll you, that's not the part of this you get to control and there's very little productivity in being afraid of it because it is inevitable, but you absolutely have control over your skillsets for dealing with them.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:47 AM on January 25 [7 favorites]

I can relate and am accommodating by default. I am also kindly assertive. Most of the time, I am a "no pressure", "let people off the hook" kind of person. I don't think there is anything wrong with this mentality unless you are suffering because others are taking advantage of your easygoing nature. It does happen and you will have to state your needs if you want to preserve your mental health and time.

Become more assertive by practicing. You will notice that assertiveness is a positive and most will respond well to assertiveness. When I was a young mother assertiveness was difficult because I had a perception that I was a burden and had to explain myself and my kids. My kids and I were just fine but I didn't think this way back then and I didn't want to "bother" anyone. My husband used to tell me that I talked too much and a couple times he told me "act like you belong" which alerted me to the fact that I was apologizing for living.

So, if you're anything like me fight the urge to explain yourself. It's anxiety that you're not like others or defective. You are not defective and get to exist and be treated well. Of course if you need to apologize for something legitimate do so, but you don't have to be sorry that you're alive. Center yourself to the present and notice the happenings in front of you instead of trying to be overly friendly or people-pleasing. You are not a burden -- you are a gift.

If you are people-pleasing things will be said that you don't mean. Breathe and be calm and think about what you say before you say it. Be kind to the person in front of you but also know that kindness can mean reminding others that they are messing up your schedule because of their tardiness. It's a relationship and relationships have give and take. You are paying for a service and the service should be provided. In relationships, professional and personal, you get to say when things aren't working.

I find it's best to be assertive from the start of an encounter. Assertiveness is about kindly stating facts. When you state facts, instead of accusing someone of being careless or irresponsible for example, things go fine. Think about what you need, and how the previous encounter went, and why you need to correct it. I was in the habit of saying yes to mediocre movie/dinner dates because I didn't want to hurt my friend's feelings, or I was glad people wanted to hang out with me and I couldn't say no. Nowadays, I can suggest an alternative movie or say yes less frequently. If she weren't a good friend I would say no. You get to choose who you hang out with and how you spend your time and money.

Another example -- I work in a job where time is of the essence. If patients are late it affects other patients. On some days it doesn't matter if the patient is late and they can have their full session. Other days it does matter and I state at the beginning: "Hi Mr. Smith, you're 15 minutes late and we are going have to end at the start of the hour." Nobody has their feathers ruffled. I'm not interested in shaming people if they are a little late and I don't need to teach anybody a lesson about being on time (because they are all adults and should and do know this) but if their lateness affects others, or me, I will say something. Usually the late patients correct their behavior because they want a full session. Your piano teacher's habits are affecting you and your kids and even if they weren't there is an expectation that paid instructors should be on time. It's not you or your friendly nature's fault.

Think about what you need to happen so your time isn't wasted or your day doesn't suffer. Say something at the start instead of fearing the awkward because if anybody should feel awkward it's the late person. With the piano teacher. "Hey Ms. Piano. I thought we were starting at noon. I have to leave in 15 minutes. When can we make this time up?" In practical terms if this piano teacher is chronically late it might be best to find someone who values clients and being on time.

Keep practicing stating your needs and show genuine kindness and regard for yourself and others instead of filling up space with anxious friendliness. It will get better.
posted by loveandhappiness at 10:12 AM on January 25 [7 favorites]

I've slowly learned to be more assertive, but still have a long way to go, but I thought that I would share my internal scripts or solutions in the hopes that they might help you.

First, pre-assertiveness, I often got to the point that I was ready to drop an acquaintance or quit a job, or something over the top because I could not state or negotiate a need. I eventually realized that it would probably be more cost-effective (time-wise) to negotiate. Also, if I was planning to drop or quit or whatever, by that time I had nothing to lose. So that was basically my internal script: I have nothing to lose (because next step was drop person or quit job) / it would be best to learn to negotiate what I want because I might have the same issue with the next job or person ). Also, once I had one or two of these early wins, it helped me move forward and do it in the next place.

The other strategy that I think might help you - I'm not sure how you got to the point with the meetings and the teachers and getting far beyond where you wanted to be - but think about any conditions that made it that way, So for me - I noticed I might agree to early to a potential client without knowing the full details and having time to reflect. If it is similar for you - then you could have meeting A with an agreement to listen, but NO DECISIONS are to be made until the next or subsequent meetings and give you time to reflect, outline, or whatever you need to do. Anywho, the basic idea is again to think about what commonality there might have been in those meetings that you could recognize? Could you modify that before those type of meetings in the future? (That request would be simple).

Finally, if there are more modes of communication being used (ie do you email the piano teacher? or text? etc). My focus was that even though in person might be "preferable" by societal norms if it communicates the idea and gets the idea done, does it matter? So for example, for a person I might frequently email with and meet in person - then email would be something I would use.

For me, all scripts (in person or on email , etc), was only a few sentences - to make it easier for both of you. I sometimes added - hey, could you do X? Because this makes me feel anxious (or insert whatever emotion) - the idea was to communicate as another person who feels and a simple request.

Hope this helps.
posted by Wolfster at 10:34 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]

Other times with a previous babysitter I was too friendly and wasn't assertive about her punctuality and eventually she was showing up 10-15 minutes late every time and then chatting with me in the kitchen the last half hour. This happens in almost every scenario and its been going on a long time.

Does the late start and the chatting delay you from getting to/from other things? Are you being billed for time that you're not actually getting services? Or do you feel like you're being exploited?

If you're delayed, you can say "I understand you're busy, but I need to be somewhere at this time, so when you show up late, I am late."

If you're being billed for time without service, you can offer payment by saying "here's $x for 2 hours tonight." If they push back and say "That should be 3 hours," you can state "you came at 7:15, and then we chatted from 9:15 to 9:45. I like talking with you, but that's social time."

But if you don't want the babysitter there after the babysitting, you could send the babysitter off with a polite "thanks so much, I'm tired so I'll let you go. I'll talk to you later!"

If you want to work out other scripts, are there people in your life who can help you with this? They could help you figure out ways to be assertive within scenarios like this, or give you feedback on how you did in situations?
posted by filthy light thief at 10:54 AM on January 25

You mentioned that you "feel a little guilty" and that this problem happens with people performing a service for you. Are you by chance feeling qualms over the class hierarchy implied by employing a housecleaner, private school, or nanny?

If so, taking a strong stand may make you feel even more like you are "lording it over" those workers.

My suggestion is to find people who feel pride in their work, and who charge higher-than-average rates for doing better-than-average work. For example, some housecleaners take pride in their work and charge more.

Then you can feel like you are interacting with a professional, rather than feeling like you are taking advantage of someone who is forced to do undesirable labor.
posted by cheesecake at 11:28 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]

The second problem with my idea, above (quickly terminate relationships with people who take advantage) is that no one's 100% virtuous. Unredeemable scum will efficiently be filtered, but over time you'll sever more and more relationships for smaller and smaller offenses. Everyone acts badly sometimes - or at least looks that way from a given perspective - so you can very easily find yourself firing everyone in your life. (I know; I've been there).

So if you go this route, you'd better be pretty clear-eyed and big-picture-framed.
posted by Quisp Lover at 1:07 PM on January 25

Popping in to say that I was truly the world's biggest doormat for years. In high school, if people were walking towards me on a sidewalk I would literally step off the walk to let them pass.

I've come to realize that a) I'm on the autism spectrum and b) have the freeze / fawn reaction patterns that can come with cPTSD. Not my fault. I don't kick myself for old patterns recurring now and again.

40 years later it's much easier for me to stand up for myself, to the point of public, no holds barred confrontation wrt bullying. For me it took a lot of being sick and tired of certain patterns recurring. Therapy, mentorship, and online communities like this one helped immensely.

Tl;dr: change is possible. In a couple years you may look back on past you and say, wow, was that me? How things have changed!
posted by Sheydem-tants at 2:35 PM on January 25 [2 favorites]

With babysitters:

First time they’re late I don’t say anything.

Second time they’re late I don’t say anything but the next time I text to book them, I would say, “Hi Lisa! Would you be able to watch baby from 4-8 on Thursday? A prompt start time is important as I have to get to an appointment, so I really need to be out the door at 4:15. Hoping it would work for you to start at 4, so we have time for a calm handoff. Would love to have you, please let me know!”

Third time they’re late, I would raise it directly. Say or text, that day or the next day- “Hi Lisa, thanks so much for watching Bella, she really enjoys spending time with you! I just want to gently ask about punctuality for start time- We’ve started late a couple times and it makes me late for my next appointment. Is there anything I can do to help matters?”

Next time they’re late (within a reasonable timeframe), I ghost them. I don’t say anything though, so I can still ask them back if I desperately need them.

As for the chatty sitters: I would say that’s your job to enforce. Just interrupt the sitter by slapping a hand to your pocket as if your phone buzzed you, and say “Oop! Haha that’s my buzz, I gotta get moving or I’ll be late! Thanks again for coming, see you at 8!”
posted by nouvelle-personne at 5:37 PM on January 25

If you do have the freeze/fawn response, you’re used to other people determining the contours of interactions, letting their responses define outcomes.

First assumption going forward: your time is just as valuable as anyone else’s, you’ve got a right to take up the space you need (and so does your child), you’re a person worth respect.

Try to be strategic. Walk into any interaction knowing what your goal for it is. Know what your boundaries are. (Like when you’re selling or buying something at a market, right? You’ve got your top number, and a number you won’t go below. You know your value, you know what you’re comfortable with.)

Quickly assess the other person to figure out what *their* goal might be (or guess at it). Also what their vulnerability might be. And where they have leverage. (Know your own leverage going in, too.)

Talk to people as you normally would, just keep some of this in mind and you might feel more in control, and that will come through.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:34 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]

Script for chatty people you are paying: as early in the conversation as you can (that is, as soon as you notice there's chatting instead of working), say, "Just to clarify: are we still on the clock? I really enjoy chatting with you, but I wouldn't feel right paying for it" or "I know you wouldn't want to charge me for socializing".

For the new school in September, maybe spend some time between now and then picturing your favorite, nicest, most assertive person, and imagine how that person would deal with the professionals at the new school. Now imagine yourself doing exactly what that person does. And imagine that person as your coach, too - someone to be encouraging to you as you practice your new skills. I can imagine that person reminding you that you don't have to get everything right the first time; you have the right to change your mind; and you can always address things at the beginning of your next encounter with someone - for example, you could say, "It seems there was a misunderstanding (or 'I didn't make myself clear'), so I'd like to make sure you know that from now on, I'd like to make sure that [my child has this resource available] [we're able to start all lessons on time] [everyone is prepared when we meet so we're all making the best use of the limited time we have together] [whatever]." Start by assuming, as much as you can, that everyone is an adult and everyone wants the interactions to go smoothly, and everyone hopes everyone will end the day happy with the outcome. Of course things don't always go that way: sometimes people are not acting considerately, and sometimes people don't care if everyone is happy with the way things turn out; but acting like everyone does can bring an expectation into the room that nudges people in that direction - and can help you reinforce in your own mind that you're among equals, and you ALL have an equal right to have the interaction go as well as possible.

Gosh, that turned out long. I hope it was helpful.

Good luck! You can do this!
posted by kristi at 1:54 PM on January 30

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