Many of us lack the ability to set clear boundaries for ourselves, or have difficulty communicating our boundaries to others - leading to feelings of resentment that make it tricky for relationships to flourish.
But it really needn’t be the guessing game that we make it. With a little guidance, we can develop skills which make all relationships a lot simpler to navigate.
So here are a few of the key ‘problem areas’, and how we might avoid them in the future with a little help from assertiveness.
4 Common Mistakes that Hurt Relationships1. Confusing assertive and aggressive behaviours
A mistake that many people make is not quite striking the right balance between assertion and aggression. And it’s a mistake that’s easy to make, because the two sit closer together than you might think and the lines are often blurred - particularly in the workplace.
It can be really tricky to make an objective self-assessment on this, so perhaps one of the easiest ways to judge whether or not we’re crossing the line towards aggression is by asking ourselves a few simple questions:
- Do I have to win at every task/argument?
- Do I find myself talking (or shouting!) over others often?
- Do I find it hard - even feel myself getting angry - when people don’t share my opinion?
- Do I often end up ‘in charge’ in group situations?
- Do I struggle to let others take the limelight?
- Do I worry that people will think I’m a pushover if I don’t stand my ground?
- Do I find it a real struggle when things don’t go how I’d like them to?
- Do I often revert to sarcasm or meanness?
If you answered ‘yes’ more than you answered ‘no’, there’s a good chance that your behaviour is bordering on aggressive, or simply acting aggressively full stop! And though a degree of self-assurance is a very admirable quality in a colleague, employee, friend or romantic partner, out-and-out aggression most certainly isn’t.
What assertiveness teaches us is to respect the opinions and values of others, as much as we advocate for our own. And it’s only with equal give and take that we can really nurture our personal relationships.
2. Acting passively
On the flip side of aggression, there’s passive behaviour. And, where one might assume that it’s better to be passive than it is aggressive, it can be just as damaging to our relationships, and certainly worse for ourselves.
So let’s do the same exercise as before, with different questions:
- Do I feel uncomfortable speaking up in group situations?
- Do I find it hard to maintain open body language and eye contact?
- Do I have trouble formulating my own ideas?
- Am I unable to set personal boundaries, i.e: saying ‘no’ to taking on extra tasks at work or social engagements that I’d rather not attend?
- Do I find myself at a loss when trying to make short, medium and long-term plans?
- Do I struggle with time management (read this great blog article to improve this: How to improve your time management by being more assertive)?
- Do I often feel overlooked?
Again, more ‘yes’s than ‘no’s is a good indication of a lean towards the passive, and this can have all sorts of implications for relationships. Struggling to voice our boundaries to others means that we’re in danger of being walked all over - leading us to feel resentment towards those in our circle. And forever putting the onus on other people to come up with suggestions, and even plans for our future, places unwanted pressure on those we come to rely on.
A truly healthy relationship is one where both parties share an equal burden of coming up with solutions to problems and suggestions for activities that you can do together. So the only way to break free of these cycles of dependence is to develop our skills of assertiveness.
3. Behaving passive-aggressively
Passive aggression is a beast all of its own and, in many ways, it can be the most damaging of all behavioural tendencies. Not only does passive-aggression mask our true feelings from others - leading to lack of understanding and subsequent resentment, on our part - it threatens to completely destroy the trust that others place in us.
Here are a few more self-assessment questions we can ask:
- Do I often neglect to tell others what I really feel?
- Do I ‘gossip’ about other people behind their backs?
- Do I struggle to keep confidential conversations a secret?
- Do I shut down in situations where I feel wronged -- opting, instead, to give others the silent treatment?
- Do I find competition hard, for fear of being shown up?
- Do I often talk ambiguously instead of being direct?
- Do I make up excuses for not wanting to do things, instead of being honest about my boundaries?
- Do I often procrastinate?
- Am I self-pitying?
The classic ‘gossipy’ traits and general confrontation avoidance of passive-aggressive types cast doubt on our legitimacy and make others wary of whether they can trust us because we’re often not even sure of what we want ourselves. Talking about others negatively serves to try and make us feel more self-assured, but it rarely works and it causes real lasting damage to, not only our close relationships, but our much wider reputation.
In learning to act assertively, we realise that it’s OK to be direct about our feelings whilst carefully managing the feelings of those around us and, in doing so, we’re able to build strong bonds of mutual respect.
4. Bottling up feelings
Finally, we have the age-old - and very British - practice of bottling everything up, until we emotionally explode. We do this as an act of protection, both for ourselves and for those that we care about, or whose opinions we respect. We falsely believe that it’s better to keep quiet and hold onto our feelings than it is to be direct with people but, in reality, this is a form of self-sabotage.
We’ve all heard the saying “a problem shared is a problem halved”, and that’s a good mantra to live by when it comes to dealing with our emotional reactions to situations. Whilst it’s certainly not advisable to throw a public wobbly when something doesn’t go our way, taking a measured approach to feeding back how we’re feeling about something frees us from the emotional baggage we’d be carrying around otherwise. And it really does benefit our relationships. because it all comes back to the second-guessing we mentioned right at the beginning: never knowing how a person is feeling can be an unnerving experience for those in their circle. Learning to share constructively requires assertive reasoning and excellent powers of communication and, for many of us, this isn’t something that comes naturally.
If you’d like to find out more about how developing your skills in assertiveness could pay dividends to your future self, you can find further information here. Half the battle is working out that we could use a little self-development! The rest can be learnt with the right sort of guidance.