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!