Assertiveness, Please!

Golden Retriever dog on his back“Assertiveness” is a catch-all word, used to describe everything from a frantic yelling match to asking your waiter for a drink refill. It was appropriated by popular psychology in the 1970’s to fit in a box between aggression and passivity, but I think it’s an especially hard word for Christians to understand given the Biblical mandates to submission and meekness. Assertiveness can be an excuse for prideful or selfish behavior, but it can also mean discovering and living out of your God-given identity. A follow-up post will give some practical examples of what that looks like, but first, I want to promote the need for assertiveness by demonstrating the hidden flaws of false humility.

In order to do that, let us fix in our minds a caricature of femininity, an uncomfortable extreme of Peter’s “gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4), the shrinking violet, the fainting southern belle, Shakespeare’s soulless Ophelia. Gentle and quiet, perhaps, but also a person who takes some emotional energy to love. Oftentimes we cannot quite put our finger on the source of our discomfort when we are with her, but consider these possibilities.

When she demurs, others must take care of her. We all have that friend who never has an opinion or will never express it. In the first case, she really does not know her own thoughts, and in the second, she is unwilling to voice them. While she may believe she is giving others the gift of deciding (which IS a gift when it is occasional and conscious), she is also handing others a greater burden. Not only do they have to guess at her preferences, but she is sending silent signals that she needs to be taken care of – in the present decision and many others ahead.

When she grovels, she implies that others are unkind. Picture a woman who constantly apologizes – for accidents and normal needs – who never asks for the bathroom or a hug and who catalogs all the reasons she is inconveniencing others. She has judged herself wanting (most likely she had outside help coming to that conclusion), and she finds relief in calling it out before anyone else can. However, there is the tacit implication that others have also judged her, that others are impatiently waiting for that apology, that they begrudge her presence, that others are critical and mean-spirited.

When she checks and rechecks, she presumes that others are dishonest. When a friend insists on taking her home (so she won’t have to walk 5 miles uphill in a rainstorm) our Shrinking Violet will ask, “Are you sure?” five or six times in ten minutes. While she has a ‘take care of me’ vibe, she is going to fight it every step of the way, making everyone else’s job even harder. In addition, she is implying that others are not honest people, agreeing to what they don’t approve and doing what they secretly resent.

When she doesn’t get what she wants, she sulks. People who don’t voice their needs and desires still have them, consciously or unconsciously. Unmet, those desires can turn into bitterness if they are held against others or depression if they are turned against self. When I forego my need out of love for Christ and others, it is worship, but when I become morose or angry as a result, that tells me I did not really do it for Him.

When she is anxious, so is everyone else. Anxiety is often the root of inhibited behavior. While I don’t believe that anxiety is in itself sinful, unrecognized and untreated anxiety is harmful to relationships. A person who is not at peace with themselves or the world communicates their agitation and uncertainty to others.

I am not talking about the person who calculates and manipulates consciously and passive aggressively, though they may share some of the characteristics above. The person I am describing has no conscious intention of hurting anyone. They would rather blend into the Personnel Change or Anonymous Businesswallpaper and attract no notice at all. They are in pain and acting out of that pain. I used to be one of them, and I still struggle with asking for (or even discerning) what I need sometimes. My purpose in pointing out the hardships involved in having a friendship with this person is to convince all of us that basic assertiveness is necessary and loving. Only in being and expressing our true selves can we have genuine, intimate, give-and-take relationships which honor the image of God in ourselves and others. Only then can we be peacemakers and confidence-builders in a world of anxiety. Indeed, the Bible calls us not only to humility but at times to boldness and to positive action. If you recognized yourself in any of the descriptions above, please begin talking about that with someone you trust. In my next post, I’ll discuss some theoretical and practical remedies for anxious inhibition which conform to Biblical norms, so stay tuned!

Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright…

a blog about anxiety

Tiger - digital art
Last Tuesday I turned a corner and came face to face with a wild tiger. You can only imagine the pounding of my heart as a million butterfly cocoons hatched in my stomach, my hands started shaking and my breath came in ragged gasps. OK, it might not have been an actual tiger hiding between the shelves of a restaurant supply warehouse, but that’s exactly how my body responded. If you had been there, YOU might have seen a difficult, four-hour national exam waiting for me to sit down at the computer (and, yes, it was actually in the back of a restaurant supply store). It’s the first time in several years that I have been so anxious, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to share with you a few things that were helpful to me.

  1. Breathe. Taking three deep breaths helped reset my respiratory system for a few minutes, at least. I did this several times during the four hour testing period. It seemed to help my concentration, as well.
  1. Pray. Praying not only gave me access to the only Person who could possibly help me under the circumstances, but it also reminded me that there is a much bigger picture than the one staring me in the face at that moment.
  1. Stretch. My stomach muscles were bunched and painful, not only during the exam period but both before and afterward. Standing and stretching provided some temporary relief and helped me calm down a little bit.
  1. Accept. The biggest change in my Tuesday experience, compared to anxiety reactions I’ve had in the past, came from my tolerance of it. Instead of worrying about how the anxiety would impact my exam results, growing frustrated at my inability to extinguish it or shaming myself for it, I told myself that I would just be anxious for a while and that was OK. A little anxiety is helpful in academic settings, and even if mine was over-the-top, it would eventually subside, and I could let it be.

I sometimes tell clients that the important thing is not to get rid of all your fears (not a very practical goal, either) but not to let them stop you from doing the important things you want to do. Jesus was not without anxiety before He went to the cross, but it didn’t stop Him from completing His mission. In a way, I think I feel better having faced the tiger of anxiety and surviving it intact than I would have if I’d never faced it at all. It’s not courage if you are never afraid, is it?

Related Resources:

Anxiety Handout

How God Can Use Anxiety for Good – Christianity Today

A Prayer about Anxiety – Scotty Smith

Worry and Fear

anxietyDear Christian Counselor,

How do you stop worrying and fear?


Dear Jitterbug,

If I had the answer to that one, I’d be a rich, rich woman! People have published whole books on the topic, and we recommend a few of them in our Resources section, along with several useful, free handouts, but I think there are four classic answers that can help:

1) Tell yourself the truth. Some people experience extreme symptoms of panic as if there was a tiger in the room. But in reality, there probably is no tiger. Tell yourself the truth about the things you fear, and tell yourself the truth about God’s loving care for you even in trouble and danger. I have a friend who clenches her right fist whenever she feels anxious to remind herself of this: Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand (Ps. 73:23).

2) Live in the present. Worry and fear concern the past (“If only”) and the future (“what if”). Teach yourself to live in the now (Matt. 6:34). Breathe deeply and concentrate on some part of your body that isn’t caught up in the anxiety – like your elbow or your kneecap. Look out the window and catalog what you see there. Pop a mint into your mouth and spend 5 minutes experiencing it. These kinds of exercises break the cycle of worry for a few minutes – which is a good thing for your heart, your spirit and your body.

3) Take a pill. I’ll bet you didn’t expect that, but anxiety is a physical as well as a mental problem. Medication should be used as a tool to help you face and conquer fears which might get the better of you without it. God has given mankind the wisdom to develop healing remedies, and, taken correctly, they can help you live a full and useful life for the Lord. Some people find they can stop their medication after a time, but others need it always. There is no shame in that (1 Tim. 5:23).

4) You don’t stop fear. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:44). If Jesus couldn’t live without experiencing anxiety, then neither can you. The suggestions above may help you minimize it, but everyone experiences some fear. You may not be able to stop the worry entirely, but you can stop worrying about the worry. Accept your anxious tendencies rather than shaming yourself or panicking about them. Tell yourself, “I’m just going to be anxious for a while, and that’s OK. I’ll be a faithful anxious person right now.” That honors God. That’s worship.