Better communication skills stem from a healthy mindset and a good attitude toward relationships in general. We can practice and communicate self-differentiation by knowing and taking responsibility for communicating our own needs. Then we can establish boundaries and gently but firmly assert them. Boundaries are not rules for others’ behavior, but for ours.
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We’ve seen that with self-differentiation, we have the courage and confidence to stand our ground and own our unique perspectives, feelings, and thoughts without allowing ourselves to be swayed by others. This goes hand in hand with assertiveness.
We need a huge caveat, though. Being assertive is not about getting others to do what you want, agree with you, think or feel the same as you do, or shut up and listen to you! Assertiveness is something we do within ourselves for ourselves. It’s an attitude that often expresses itself in words or actions, but it is firstly an attitude. When we understand our own needs, take responsibility for them and have enough presence of mind to transmit them honestly and respectfully to others, then we are assertive. If we find ourselves wanting to control or dominate others, this is not assertiveness at all—in fact, it demonstrates a special kind of insecurity and lack of power.
In relationships, we’ve seen that zero-sum thinking, viewing the other as an enemy and operating from fear and mistrust are recipes for disaster. We can unconsciously hold the belief that we have to somehow force others to treat us well. We imagine that there’s only so much love and affection to go around, and that if we want some, we have to wrestle it from others. Perhaps we believe that we have to be loud or powerful or domineering in order for people to respect us. Or that we have to push to the front of the proverbial queue or be a little rude to stop others from walking all over us.
In fact, genuine assertiveness and confidence look nothing like the stereotypes. The truly strong, confident, and self-assured person doesn’t have to be a loud bully. They can be perfectly polite, relaxed, humorous, accommodating, and kind. All that’s required is for them to know their needs and quietly yet firmly assert them. And it’s “assert”—not shout, not demand, and certainly not beg or convince or manipulate. Simply assert with the same easy certainty as you would assert, “The sky is blue.”
This goes back to self-differentiation. When we know ourselves and who we are, we don’t get caught up in who other people are. We like and respect who they are, but it has nothing to do with what we know and what we choose to do for ourselves. Likewise, if we know our own worth, we don’t get caught up trying to force other people to acknowledge it. If we know what we need, we can’t be told by others what they think we should have. And if we are deeply convinced of our own right to hold boundaries and have our (reasonable) needs met, then we don’t get into scuffles and arguments over what we are and are not entitled to. Incidentally, when we are self-assertive, we find it much easier to grant other people their assertiveness, and we easily and happily respect their boundaries. Self-differentiation, confidence, respect, and assertively defended boundaries are all part and parcel of the same mindset.
Let’s put this all into concrete, usable terms.
1. You are a human being who is no better and no worse than other human beings, and have innate worth. From this worth comes the entitlement to seek to satisfy your own reasonable needs (not wants and desires but needs).
2. As a unique and self-differentiated individual, it’s your responsibility to know your needs and communicate these to others with clarity and respect.
3. If you establish a healthy boundary that is disrespected, it’s your responsibility to follow up with consequences or remove yourself from the situation.
Notice anything interesting about the above? None of it has anything to do with getting other people to do things. It’s all about what you do. Being an assertive person with good boundaries is not about having rules for how other people treat you, but rather rules about how you’re willing to be treated, given your own reasonable needs.
You cannot control what other people do, only what you do. You’re responsible for knowing and communicating your needs, and they are responsible for communicating and knowing theirs. This means that you cannot be expected to read other people’s minds, nor can you expect them to read yours—we all have to proactively and clearly communicate our needs to others. After all, if we’re in the territory of what we think other people should and shouldn’t do, we are intruding into their territory. It is never for us to say what another person’s life means, what they should value, how they should act, or the perspective they should take.
That said, asking clearly and assertively for what you need isn’t a guarantee that you’ll get it. Let’s be honest—life isn’t fair. Sometimes good people are not given what they need, and sometimes being in the right doesn’t spare you any injustice. Still, this doesn’t absolve us from taking charge and asserting who we are, and what we need.
In any conversation, don’t tell people what to do. Instead, tell them what your needs are. Listen to their needs. Put up a boundary according to your own values and limits. If a boundary is repeatedly violated, don’t get angry and hang around trying to manipulate the other person into caring or repenting—just leave and get your needs met elsewhere. You have a right to seek your needs, and they (frustratingly) have a right not to meet yours. But then again, you have a right to walk away from such a person! It’s all a matter of choices.
One easy way to develop healthy assertiveness in relationships is to watch out for the word “should.” If you find yourself saying what the other person should be doing, pause and check in instead with what you need in that moment. To be heard? To be left alone? A little bit of affection? Respect? Then say so. Turn the focus away from their actions and onto your own needs. So, instead of saying, “My job should be paying me more,” empower yourself by saying, “I need a higher salary and more recognition.” Now, you can choose what to do. Ask for a raise? Look for a better job? You’re not stuck waiting for someone else to take action before you can get your needs met. You are taking that action yourself.