I like the word ‘assertive’. It soothes me, like a mug of warm hot chocolate before bed, but it also makes me feel empowered, like someone who turns down the mug of hot chocolate even though the person who’s trying to give it to them just won’t take no for an answer. I’M NOT THIRSTY OKAY.
But the thing is, I’m not assertive – and I’m acutely aware of that. I like to think of that side of things as a project, a work in progress, and I’m confident that if I die having said the word ‘no’ without any cushioning or excuses, I’ll die a happy gal. In the meantime, though, it’s a struggle. Here are some things that I reckon are true for unassertive people everywhere…
You feel really secretly resentful of everyone who’s got their shit together
Sometimes you meet someone and you just KNOW. This perfectly confident person has never cried themselves to sleep because they said “Sure thing!” when they really meant “I cannot think of anything I’d like to do less.” They haven’t spent over £200 of their disposable income on self-help books called things like ‘Banish Your Self Esteem Thief’. They’ve never had to hide said books when people come round in case said people think they’re weird. They’re healthy, well-versed in the ‘firm but fair’ way of life and probably go to kickboxing classes. They say things like “What did your last slave die of?” in a jokey-but-serious voice so everyone laughs and the offender skulks off. You try to copy them a few days later but it doesn’t work and everyone thinks you’ve got PMS.
The word ‘no’ is not in your vocabulary
If someone asks you if you want to go see a band you hate, your response is “Oh! I’m not sure what I’m doing that night. I’ll…I’ll check. Leave it with me, I’ll get back to you. Oh, yes, they’re very good. Mmm. I agree.” In your head, you’re thinking of all the possible excuses you can give, and end up telling your friend that it’s your grandma’s birthday that night. Wasn’t it your grandma’s birthday a few months ago? Oh! Yes, it was. She has two. Like the Queen. SHIT.
Those self-help books can only go so far
You’ll see a new one on Amazon: FIVE STARS! It helped Jane from Northampton more than the author will ever know! It changed Dave’s life! WELL. You add this book to your basket and before you know it you’re sitting cross-legged on the floor devouring its contents like chocolate cake.
But no matter how useful these books may seem – and some of them genuinely are pretty good – they fail to touch on what happens if the target of your newfound assertiveness doesn’t react in the way that you want them to. They work on the premise that when you finally start to be assertive, people will say “Oh my god! You’re SO right! I am an awful human being and I apologise a thousand times. Please forgive me, dear friend. I will never wrong you again.” This is rarely the case – in fact, people often come back with a “Now, you listen here!” response… SO WHY HAVEN’T OUR BOOKS PREPARED US FOR THIS?
The only time people see you express your true feelings is when you explode
My cat, Mr Tiggs (may god rest his soul) used to let me stroke his tummy when he lay down. He didn’t like it but he’d let it slide. After a few minutes of prodding and tickling he’d lose his patience and glare as if he wanted to drown me in his bowl of milk, while swiping angrily with outstretched claws. Cue tears and antiseptic wipes while Mr Tiggs and I sulked in opposite corners of the room.
Like my unfortunately-named cat, unassertive people will let things go for a while. We seem like we’re pretty good at it. But here’s a secret: we’re not! For us, ‘letting things go’ can often really mean ‘burying each and every wrongdoing deep inside our blackened heart until one day when we write our friend a very long and in-depth email detailing everything they’ve done to offend us since we first met at primary school in 1997’. It’s not healthy, and when we do finally snap in the end it’s largely unproductive and embarrassing – plus it seems like it comes from nowhere. It shocks people that this kindly, sort-of-shy friend of theirs has actually been tending to a vast filing cabinet of bitterness since the get-go.
As a child, you were told to keep a diary and/or take up drama lessons
Don’t worry, the diary thing wasn’t just you. We didn’t quite understand the logic but all hoped it would turn us into a cool ‘n’ quirky observer, like Harriet the Spy, or Mia from the Princess Diaries, or the kid from that American TV show who kept video journals. Sadly it didn’t. Instead it turned into more self deprecation when you realised your day-to-day activities weren’t particularly exciting and that writing “Had skool today. BORING!” a few times a week and listing the Top 10 Hot Boys In Science Class was never going to create an assertive adult. Drama lessons were equally as ineffective – you’d stand at the back, hope you landed a role in the chorus and mime the words to songs instead of actually singing, which you’d then swear blind you hadn’t done when another kid dobbed you in the next day. SHUT UP, MICHAEL.
Are you as unassertive as me? Let’s cry about it together