Men are afraid to rock the boat in which they hope to drift safely through life’s current, when, actually, the boat is stuck on a sandbar. They would be better off to rock the boat and try to shake it loose, or, better still, jump in the water and swim for the shore. –Thomas Szasz
It is inherent upon us to crave for approval from fellow human beings and that we fear disapproval. We were somewhat designed to skirt the danger that is social scorn. True, public scorn has risks, but we greatly exaggerate them. Fear of others’ judgments is a necessary human adaptation, but it is a clumsy and imprecise mechanism. That’s why we worry so much about risking the boss’s wrath in requesting a promotion, defying dad by forsaking the family business or breaking with our colleagues by going against the established mediocre systems, etc..
We avoid conflicts and are hyperconscious of other people’s opinions of us, especially people we deem important. We like those who like us. Problem is, we go overboard and freak out if we make an inappropriate remark or otherwise jeopardize our status. We all worry about others’ approval, regardless of our place on the food chain.
Every social encounter is a subtle dance of dominance and submission. Asking someone to clarify a remark, taking your time to answer a question, suggesting a date—or saying no to one—require an intuitive understanding of the dance steps. Assertiveness is taking the lead. Chances are, even the most forward among us err on the side of submission. (After all, outlaws commit crimes in only a fraction of the instances where a crime is possible!) So unassertiveness becomes, for many of us, the default. Implicit self-instructions like, “when in doubt, shut up and go along,” sometimes keep us, and kept our ancestors, out of trouble. But you want to thrive, not just survive.
Today, we have a luxury most humans never had. We can pursue more than just survival and reproduction—we now search for meaning, contentment and fulfillment. In theory, we know we’re free agents, but when we tie ourselves in knots about how to tell the in-laws not to middle about how to nurse of raise a child or how to “effectively” manage a family or agonize about requesting a raise, we’re really grappling with the prehistoric dogma: Sit tight and don’t rock the boat.
In a world with written laws and police (not to mention the option to relocate, find another job or remarry), we needn’t be hypercautious about every social encounter. But most of us are still saddled with this preimposed, perennial dogma —an overly developed concern for how we’re perceived by everyone. I bet that you would agree that most people are pretty preoccupied worrying about what you think of them. We have less power over others’ opinions than we think, so we might as well discount them if possible. When the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman was hunkered down at Los Alamos, his ailing wife, Arlene, sent him personalized pencils inscribed, “Richard Darling, I love you! Putsy.” When she found out that he didn’t use them because his famous colleagues might laugh, a stunned Arlene asked, “What do you care what other people think?” Her words became his assertiveness maxim—and the title of one of his books.
Being assertive does not mean you must always get your way or proudly flout social norms. The golden mean of assertiveness resides between the extremes of passivity and aggression. Straightforward communication always beats cowering or commandeering.
Starting today, try monitoring the social risks you avoid, and note the times when you act either passively or angrily. Then look for the assertive alternative. Push yourself to act assertively even if it feels alien and uncomfortable at first. Like for our ancestors, conditions were often either “safe or sorry.” Today, you’ll be sorry if you’re too safe.
Learn to tolerate the discomfort of doing what you think is right even if you feel great emotional pressure to conform. Make clear statements about what you prefer. Take your time when answering questions put to you. Make your preferences clear without demanding that others accede to them. Practice making requests and refusals as well as letting others know your positive thoughts and feedback. Accept other people’s right to refuse your requests.
Let’s rock the boat, shall we?
P.S. If you liked this post, you might as well love: Breaking up with Medi O. Crity
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