How to Be Assertive: A Guide for Empaths
I have been called a doormat on more than one occasion in my life. A “pushover” more times than I can count.
This is the struggle of an empath: to feel and to care so deeply that the thought of causing another person pain or sorrow literally becomes your own pain and sorrow. To avoid disappointing someone, you agree to help even though now you’ll have to reshuffle your already packed schedule. You don’t want to be inhospitable, so you invite the unexpected guest in even though it’s a bad time. You don’t want to be uncompassionate, so you listen to your friend’s sob story for the 14,000th time.
And what happens then?
Well, because we’re empaths, it starts to affect our energy. Empaths are like walking batteries of energy. Others, often those in need of an “energy fix”, are drawn to empaths like moths to a flame. Without meaning to, they will quickly drain your energy, leaving you exhausted and resentful.
People with highly empathic personalities tend to struggle most with being assertive. However, it is empaths who often need assertiveness skills the most. Whilst the idea of setting and holding boundaries can cause us to break a nervous sweat, they are extremely important and necessary. Without boundaries, we will bleed energy faster than we can generate it. We have none left over for anyone else, or even for ourselves.
Additionally, failure to set up boundaries, particularly with those who serially break them, causes resentment. It affects your energy around that person. Resentment is an insidious poison. It eats away at your relationship until you may do irreparable damage which could have been avoided with healthy boundaries.
Why empaths struggle with being assertive
Often our fear of standing up for ourselves and asserting our boundaries comes from a fear that if we are assertive or set a boundary it will negatively impact the relationship.
In our society, from an early age, we are taught to associate reward and punishment based on how well we are able to fulfill others’ expectations. If we made our parents or teachers happy, we were a “good girl”. If, however, we went against their wishes, we were misbehaving and often punished. In other words, we were taught to please the external world (parents/teachers etc) and ignore our instincts and inner guidance.
Phrases such as:
“Don’t talk back”
“Because I said so”
“Give that toy to your brother – you have to share”
“Don’t be selfish”
“Turn the other cheek”
“No, come on, you have to give Aunty Agnes a cuddle”
… all of which were spoken with the best intentions by parents and people in positions in authority, subconsciously taught us:
That there were others in the world who were superior to us
That our own needs/wants/feelings were invalid
To put others’ needs and wants before our own, even at the sacrifice of our own
Not to stand up for ourselves in conflict
That our own sense of boundaries and comfort levels were less important than doing something to please others.
In short, many of us were unconsciously taught that our own boundaries, needs, and wants were less important than those of others. We commonly made phrases like those mean that it was not okay to stand up for and assert our own rights or set healthy boundaries with others. We learned that it was more important to do things to make others happy.
As we grow into adulthood, it becomes more difficult to “unlearn” people pleasing behavior – even as we’re saying “yes” while our inner being is screaming, “Oh God, please NO!”
Signs you have weak boundaries or struggle with assertiveness
You have difficult or dramatic relationships with people in your life, often centered around them overstepping or making you feel uncomfortable.
You’re a bit of a disaster at making decisions.
You put everyone’s needs before your own.
You automatically defer to people you perceive to have a level of authority over you.
You’re anxious that if you draw a boundary or say no it might cost you your relationship.
You feel as if people misunderstand you a lot or do not respect you.
Your behavior has started to drift into the passive-aggressive.
You tend to bottle up your feelings and then randomly explode.
Why being assertive is important
The most important thing to understand about your boundaries is that you have a right to them. Boundaries are not something only selfish people have. (In fact, if you are worried about being “selfish”, you’re probably not. The most selfish people often never worry about being selfish.)
Your boundaries are NOT there to punish others. In fact, your boundaries are not about anybody else at all. Your boundaries are to protect you – your energy, health, emotional safety and your relationships.
Being assertive will not damage your relationships with others (at least, not the people who are genuinely invested in you). In fact, being assertive will actually help protect your relationships.
It seems counterintuitive, but failing to be assertive and establish clear boundaries can damage your relationships. Sure, in saying no or being assertive there might be some short-term disappointment, discomfort and even anger from the other person (particularly if they are not used to you setting boundaries). Ultimately though, when you don’t speak your truth, and instead suppress how you really feel, you will grow resentful.
Without you knowing it, this resentment that you build up causes you to subconsciously emit a negative energy. The other person will pick up on it, consciously or unconsciously. And, as the law of attraction tells us, what you resist persists. That negative energy will only attract more of the same from the other person.
However, directly saying no or setting a boundary draws your line in the sand. It allows the other person to clearly know where you stand. It gives them a framework for how to interact with you effectively, without the guesswork. This means fewer misunderstandings and therefore, less conflict in the long run.
There are many benefits to being assertive:
You will be a better communicator: It doesn’t matter whether you’re dealing with your husband, your mother, your boss, or new people. Being assertive allows you to express yourself more confidently. You will be able to get your point across succinctly and calmly. You’re less likely to run into misunderstandings.
You will have greater self-esteem: When we honor our own needs we tell ourselves “you are worthy of respect”. This not only enhances our self-image but also enhances the level of respect we draw from others.
You can step more fully into your authentic self: You never have to hide anymore or pretend to be someone you’re not. What you bring to your relationships will be more authentic, genuine and attractive. You will be congruent in feeling, thought, word and action. Think of how much more clear and magnetic your energy will be!
It makes you more likable: People are drawn to others when they know where they stand with them. When you can clearly communicate your needs and wants to others, you teach people how to treat you. You show them that you are capable of making your own decisions and have limits on the behavior you are willing to tolerate. When people perceive you have a clear direction and a healthy self-esteem, they are more likely to respect you and less likely to try and wheedle you around to their point of view or talk you into doing something you’re not comfortable with. Your willingness to be genuine, transparent and upfront encourages others to do the same, and people love other people who allow them that freedom. They will love that when they speak to you, they know where they stand and they also feel respected and heard. They will love that they are set up for success in their interactions with you by knowing how best to communicate.
Less anxiety and depression: We can actually reduce social anxiety and awkwardness by confronting our fear of being assertive or facing confrontation. After a few nerve-wracking first attempts, we soon learn that it is not as scary as we once first thought. When we ask for what we want and establish boundaries, we make more room in our lives for what we do want, leading to a more fulfilling and easeful experience of life, which in turn raises our mood. You will feel more in control of your life, which is fantastic manifestation mojo!
What is a boundary?
A boundary is a personal limitation, based on what YOU feel comfortable with, around three things:
The behavior other people can expect from you
How other people may behave around you
How other people may treat you and your relationship.
Everyone has their own personal boundaries, based on their own beliefs, opinions, and values. Your boundaries help you to feel safe, confident and happy.
You have the right and the responsibility to protect your own boundaries.
Others are not responsible for maintaining or setting your boundaries for you.
You do not set boundaries to punish others or make them unhappy, but rather to make you happy.
Boundaries are not put in place to limit your happiness, but to protect it.
Boundaries are not there to impinge or encroach on the rights of others.
You do not stop having a right to a boundary because someone else tells you it is silly, over-sensitive or unjustified.
You’re not under any obligation to explain, justify or defend your boundaries.
You have the right to change and move your boundaries at any time as you learn and grow from your life experiences.
You do not owe anyone:
A justification for your values, your beliefs or your feelings
The answer “yes” out of obligation
Personal information that you are not comfortable with disclosing, or ready to disclose
An apology when you are not sorry
Your friendship, physical contact or your sexuality
A commitment, just because you were asked i.e. no “should” language
Your time if you cannot or do not wish to part with it
The truth if it is of no concern to them
An explanation for “No”
The loan of something that is yours because you were asked or someone else needs it
You have every right to:
Feel good about yourself and your decisions
Change your mind at any time
Say no without guilt
Ask for help when you need it
Ask directly for what you want
Protest unfair treatment/criticism
Recognition when you have achieved something
Graciously accept a compliment or an offer for help
Think about your response and take your time with it before committing
Your opinion, your beliefs, and your feelings
Boundaries come in different forms:
Material or physical boundaries, like a fence around your house, your toothbrush, your personal space, your body and your privacy.
Mental boundaries, like your thoughts, opinions, and values.
Emotional boundaries i.e. your feelings. You have a right to feel whatever you are feeling.
Sexual boundaries around touch and sexuality. You have a right to your own personal comfort level around this area. You never OWE anybody a breach of those sexual boundaries.
Spiritual boundaries around your beliefs and connection to God/the Universe et cetera.
To set a boundary is to recognize that we and we alone are responsible for our own happiness in life. By that same logic, each individual is responsible for their own happiness and joy. It is not up to us to make others happy or to please them. We are never obligated to fulfill someone else’s requirements for happiness. In fact, that task would be impossible. You could give someone the world and they could choose to be miserable.
Our job is not to make others happy. Our job is to make ourselves happy and then bring that happy, fulfilled, highest self and all the light within it to the world.
What is assertiveness?
To be assertive is to confidently and directly ask for what one wants, claim one’s rights, stand up for one’s boundaries and put forward one’s views, in a respectful way without infringement on the rights or boundaries of others. It is kind of like the peaceful middle ground between being passive and being aggressive.
When we first start practicing assertiveness, sometimes the pendulum is prone to swinging dramatically in the other way. That is, we charge ahead from passivity and passive aggressive to outright aggressive, refusing to back down or compromise.
But in fact, being assertive is the art of walking the tightrope between your rights and another person’s. The aim of being assertive and setting boundaries is not to always get your way or to make another person feel bad. Rather, it is a communication style that helps to directly and confidently communicate your wants, feelings, beliefs, and opinions and at the same time honoring and respecting the other person’s wants, feelings, beliefs, and opinions.
How to be assertive
Understand the difference between “niceness” and “kindness”
Phoebe’s response is hilarious but rooted in enlightened truth.
Phoebe does not want to help, so Phoebe does not help.
Phoebe is a generous, giving and supportive friend. But she doesn’t exhaust her energy when it doesn’t feel right for her. Phoebe’s friends don’t even bat an eye when she declines to help and just keep on loving her.
Be like Phoebe.
Society has cleverly developed selfishness to come cloaked under the guise of selflessness. Doing something to “be nice” or because we “should” might seemselfless at first, but when we peel back the layers, it is actually rooted in Ego. We do it because we are afraid of how we will look to others if we don’t.
Before you say “yes” to a request, ask yourself whether your response is really coming from your heart space or your Ego.
If you feel good about it, you are excited about it, and you feel love in your heart, it’s a no-brainer, ‘Hell yes’. If language starts to come up around “should”, or obligation, your Ego is probably whispering in your ear.
Sometimes even though it seems like you’re doing the selfless thing, it really isn’t so. True selflessness comes from a heart space of your higher self, generosity, love and giving of yourself freely, unconditionally and without expectation. You are happy to do it and you bring a joyful, contagious, compassionate energy when you do it. This is kindness. Kindness is selflessness.
Ego-based “niceness” comes from a heart space of should, obligation, shame, conditions or strings attached e.g. that now it will make the other person happy or pleased with you. You feel a sense of dread, resentment or stress around doing it and you don’t enjoy yourself when you are following through. This is doing it to “be nice”. Niceness is rooted in Ego.
Also remember this important fact: being truly kind involves being kind to yourself, too.
You don’t have to respond to a request right away
Just because somebody asks you to do something, you are under no obligation to give them an answer on the spot when you’re unsure. In fact, it is helpful when learning to be assertive to take your time with a response rather than saying “Yes” on autopilot.
Give yourself the space to respond to a request in a conscious manner. You can go away and give it some thought and reflection. When you have decided whether it feels right to you, you can respond accordingly. This is a great way to train yourself to listen to your inner voice again.
For example: Thank you for asking me. Can I just have some time to think about this/check my calendar and get back to you?
Show assertiveness in your physiology
Tony Robbins often says that physiology creates psychology. This is very true. How you position your body can actually affect your confidence. Watch assertive business leaders and observe their body language. Are they slumping, avoiding eye contact, fidgeting, or hunched?
If you watch an assertive person, they stand straight and tall. Their shoulders are not hunched up in protection mode, but relaxed. They will make regular eye contact and do not fidget.
Try the following to assume a more confident, assertive posture:
Assume the Superhero pose: stand with your feet slightly wider apart, up tall. Relax your shoulders, stick out your chest, and rest your hands gently on your hips. Before you need to set a boundary or go into a situation that requires you to be assertive and confident, Tony Robbins recommends holding this position for a couple of minutes.
Maintain regular eye contact throughout the conversation.
Breathe normally – rapid and shallow breathing can heighten anxiety and tension.
Keep your face relaxed – smile a little if it feels natural.
Speak at a normal conversation volume and rhythm. Avoid yelling, whispering or mumbling.
Know your INTENTION
Speak to the other person and listen to them with the aim of the outcome in mind, being to resolve your situation calmly, respectfully and confidently.
Speak clearly and authentically
Sometimes, your truth is the hardest thing to speak. And when we do, we often feel like we have to have a story.
Try to be as honest, authentic and direct as you can when communicating. Make it clean, simple and compact. Less is definitely more. You don’t need to come up with a thousand reasons, justifications or backstory. Be direct and upfront. You will feel better and you give the other person a clear message which they are more likely to understand. The energy around it will be clear and untarnished with tension.
Example: Instead of … I can’t go out tonight because I really have to (insert elaborate half-bullshit backstory here) try… No, I can’t go out tonight. Thank you for the invite though!
Remember that we are all equal
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
– Eleanor Roosevelt
Remember that each and every one of us is made of stardust. We are all just slightly different vibrations of the same energy. You have as much right to be here – on this planet, in this place, sharing the same air – as anybody else. You have as much right to your opinions, your feelings, and your beliefs as anyone else does. You’re as worthy of love, compassion, and support as anybody else. If you are struggling with being assertive, it is because you are looking at people with distorted lenses. You are giving them all of your power.
Instead, see people as they truly are: at eye level to you. I have heard sometimes that it helps to visualize this person as a little child. Remember, we all started out as a tiny, helpless infant. If you look at people as monsters or gods on a great pedestal who deserve your deference, compliance and to be the boss of you, it will naturally incite fear in you. But if you look at them as the little children they once were, you will feel more confident around them.
Don’t expect others to be mind readers
Empaths are quite good at perceiving others’ emotions and anticipating their needs. However. Unless you are also a very talented clairvoyant, it is likely that you cannot read minds and by the same logic, others cannot read yours.
You are the only expert on you that there is. So, while you may have said one thing and tried to use tone and hints to convey a different message, the other person is likely to take what you say and actually do at face value. Your subtlety to spare the awkwardness of direct confrontation is not as obvious to them as it is to you - and it isn’t up to them to try and “decode” you. The responsibility of the communication lies with the communicator to convey their message clearly and kindly.
“But I said “yes” in a reluctant way to give the impression that I would rather that she came over another day and left me alone today.”
Assume that nobody is a mind reader (because most people are not). Set them up for success in your interactions with them. If you want something, convey it clearly. If their behavior upsets you, let them know. Never assume that someone should know subliminally what you want or do not want. Until humans mutate to be able to communicate telepathically, they probably don’t.
When setting a boundary, address the behavior, not the person
Remember, the person is your brother/sister in God. You love them and (hopefully) want to continue your relationship with them. After all, that’s why you’re here reading this article instead of cutting ties. It is not that you want them to change as a person. You only want the behavior to change.
Instead of “you are a liar” (attacking the person), try, “I felt so upset yesterday when I found out you had lied to me.”
People will defend their sense of self/identity to the death as it encompasses who they are. A comment on someone’s identity (i.e. that starts with “you are”) can cause someone to feel threatened and under attack. They are more likely to be defensive, inflamed, and argumentative. A comment about behavior expressed the right way is a lot easier to digest and respond to.
State facts, not opinions, and never exaggerate
For starters, in the art of negotiation or argument, an exaggeration can be quickly disproven and an opinion can be debated with. This can get you off on the wrong foot with the person, making them more critical of what you have to say. It also tends to escalate into an argument or debate. Try to stick to facts. State specific instances.
Instead of “you always call me in the middle of the night” try “I received two phone calls from you, one on Monday and one on Thursday, after 10 pm”.
Avoid getting into an argument
Particularly when people are not used to you setting boundaries with them, it is often the case that they will become defensive. They may try to counter-attack, justify why they feel they have to break the boundary, set ultimatums, get very angry, name call, or engage you with “he said/she said” debate. Stand your ground and stick to your line in the sand. Do your best to avoid getting off topic, and bring them back around to the topic at hand.
Use “I” statements, rather than starting a sentence with “you”
When starting a situation with “you” e.g. “you make me so upset when you call me plus sized”, it transfers responsibility to the other person. This often causes the other person to try to defend their position. However, “I felt upset when you referred to me on Sunday as plus sized. In future, please do not use that term to describe me” does a number of things:
You take ownership of the feeling
You establish your own boundary without room for argument
The other person does not feel attacked, as you address the behavior and not the person.
This makes them more likely to understand you and want to respect your boundaries in the future.
Stick to addressing one boundary at a time
Anything more than one boundary at a time is more likely to incite a defensive response from the other person or a feeling of being attacked. Address one behavior, or boundary, at a time. The other person is less likely to feel overwhelmed or attacked, and more likely to respond in a helpful way.
Listen to the other person’s point of view and aim to reach a compromise where you can
He or she might have something to say that could change your perspective. Or, they may be genuinely trying to resolve the situation so that both of your needs are met. They may also have a boundary that they want to have honoured, too. Be willing to listen to the communication of their own needs and boundaries. Remember, the positive intention of being assertive is not to “win”, but rather about expressing your needs and setting boundaries whilst respecting the needs and boundaries of the other person. You can then assert your boundary in such a way that the other person feels heard and respected.
I’m hearing that you miss me and want to catch up. I miss you too. We have so much to catch up on! It’s not a good time for me to have visitors today. If you’re free for coffee Tuesday morning, I’d love you to pop by.
Use ABCD to set a boundary
The ABCD-C method is as follows:
A is for Affect, that is, your feelings stated in “I” language
B is for the Behaviour of the other person that bothers you
C is for the Consequences that behavior has on you
D is for the Description of the behavior that you would like to see instead.
C(II) is for the Consequences of what will happen if your boundary continues to be crossed.
Before ABCD, start by emphasizing the importance of the person and their relationship with you. For example, “I love seeing you and I honor our relationship. I am frustrated and angry that you were late to meet me for lunch three times this week without calling to let me know. Because of this, I feel as if the time and energy I put into our friendship is not respected and like I cannot rely on you. I understand that things happen beyond people’s control to make them late for appointments and I would appreciate a phone call if you know you are going to be late so that I can re-organize my time. If this continues to happen, I am not going to meet you for lunch in the future.”
Remember that you are not the boss of how anyone else feels or behaves
Did you know that passive people and aggressive people, whilst their communication styles are completely different, both share the same problem?
Both of these types of people often think that they are able to control how others think, feel or perceive them. It’s just that they have different ways of approaching the situation.
We all can surmise that an aggressive person takes control over another person’s feelings and behavior. He exerts his will through physical, emotional and psychological force. He will wear others down until they agree (at least to his face), or do as he asks. A passive person also attempts to take control of another person’s feelings and behavior. She does this by submitting her will to them, doing things just to make them happy, anticipate their needs and even put their needs above her own, even when it is making her miserable.
The only person who is responsible for your happiness is you and you alone. You cannot make somebody else happy. You have no control over how another person thinks, feels, or acts.
Of course, this is not to say that you should now become an uncompassionate asshat who never considers anybody else’s feelings and just does whatever she wants. (And you’re an empath, so I doubt this will ever be the case anyway.) Of course, you should continue to be your kind self and consider others’ feelings. This is part of being assertive too. But if in the process of setting your boundaries or saying no in a compassionate and respectful way somebody gets offended or upset, that is not your problem. You have no control over that and it is not your responsibility.
Own your decision
When somebody has been used to dealing with Daisy Doormat and all of a sudden they are confronted with Assertive Annie and Her Boundaries, it’s likely to cause a stir. Feathers will ruffle. Some people will tantrum. They will act unresourcefully. They will start pushing back, or test those boundaries in a big way. In some extreme cases, they may even stop contact with you for a while.
Own your decision. You have made it for a reason. As Dr. Seuss says:
Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.
Stand by your decision and remember: the short term pain of causing a little conflict here will save you the long term pain of a life lived for others instead of for yourself.
Just Say NO
I once heard a life coach say: “Remember, whenever you say YES to something, it means saying NO to something else”.
The more you say YES to others, the less you are able to say YES to yourself.
Start saying “no” to things you don’t want to do, to things that conflict with your schedule, to things that cross a boundary and to things that make you feel uncomfortable.
You don’t have to be an asshole about it. In fact, you can say “No” so politely it sounds even better than the reluctant, “Okay” you have probably been blurting out on autopilot heretofore.
Examples of a loving no:
“Thank you so much for thinking of me. It’s a definite no from me. Best wishes with it though. I hope it goes well.”
“I’m so honored you asked me. It’s not something I can commit to. Have you asked Heather? She’s a whiz with these things.”
“Thank you so much for the invite. I’m afraid I can’t make it tonight. Have an excellent time, I’m sure it will be a blast.”
But won’t some people be disappointed?
Well, yeah. And some might even show it quite pointedly. But that’s okay. As long as you’ve said no in a considerate way that honors the other person, how they choose to respond is not your responsibility… remember?
Follow through and restate your boundaries as necessary
When you have established a boundary, particularly with people who are not used to having those boundaries with you, a large part of being assertive is following through. It is not up to the other person to maintain your boundary – it is up to you. For example, if you have asked somebody not to call you late at night, and they continue to do so, switch off your phone. If you have asked a friend not to gossip about a mutual friend and the next time you meet she brings it up, reiterate your boundary with her. For example: Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear last time we caught up. I feel uncomfortable gossiping about Jane when she is not here. If it continues I will leave”.
The-break-glass-in-case-of-emergency response: the broken record
I’ve left this one until last because I don’t like to use it unless I have to. I prefer to reach a resolution in a loving way, and hope that along the way my boundaries will be respected.
However, my biggest struggle around assertiveness was always when I would say no, or state a boundary, and someone would argue with me.
I was told that I didn’t have a good enough reason. They would argue the toss. I was told that my boundaries were silly. They would ask “why” until I started getting existential. I would get so flustered, anxious and flummoxed that in the end, I would just cave in and then spend the rest of time hating myself and wishing I was stronger.
That is, until I pulled out my last resort, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency assertiveness tool for dealing with especially difficult people. I learned this one whilst I was working for a court. There were times when I had to firmly say no to lawyers who, let’s face it, make a living being able to argue their point. I found it works terribly well in social settings with alpha types or people who have an aggressive communication style.
Repeat yourself like a broken record stuck on your assertion.
For example: “No, I’m not coming out tonight.”
Not the whole story, just your succinct answer. Repeat it calmly, coolly and verbatim, no matter what the other person tries, asserts or argues. In a relatively short amount of time, the other person will back down as there is nowhere they can really go from there. It is very difficult to argue with a repeated statement. I like this one because it requires very little rehearsal or on the spot pressure to come up with a thousand excuses.
Assertiveness is a learned skill and can be difficult for anyone at first – not just empaths. You probably will feel anxious the first couple of times you try it. But remember, like any skill, it takes practice to master. The benefits of learning to be assertive far outweigh the short-term discomfort of asserting yourself. It means that you get to live life on your terms – in a way that fulfills you and makes you feel good. And when you feel good and take care of yourself, you have more to give to others.