Reducing stress often requires that you assert yourself in cutting back on your commitments. In many cases these commitments of your time and energy revolve around the needs of other people who will try to pressure you to do things you really do not have the time or energy to do. Assertiveness is often confused with aggressiveness. People often confuse being assertive with being pushy, bitchy, demanding, and other negative attributes. Many people fail to explore becoming more assertive because they don’t want to be perceived by others as being aggressive. In actuality, assertiveness is not a negative attribute at all. It is based on mutual respect and democracy in relationships. Assertiveness is best described as understanding your wants and needs and pursuing them without infringing on the wants and needs of others. Aggressiveness, in contrast, is defined as pursuing your needs and wants without any regard to how this affects the rights of others. In fact, most aggressive people usually get their needs met at the expense of others. Non-assertiveness is best described as failing to pursue your needs and wants while allowing others to meet theirs at your expense. Non-assertive people frequently fail to stick up for their rights and allow others to take advantage of them, often while denying that this is even going on.
Lack of assertiveness is a key factor in becoming overburdened with commitments that demand your time and energy and interfere with doing what you want or need to do. Remember; time and energy are not infinite commodities. You only have so many hours in a day and so much energy to do what you want or need to do.
Being nonassertive can fill you with resentment and hostility toward others. This happens because in an attempt to avoid conflict and feeling guilty for not pleasing the other person you say yes to some demand when they you really want to say no. Although this temporarily relieves you from feeling guilty it almost always leads to stress. When you say yes to something that you either don’t want to do or don’t have the time and energy to do, you instantly feel trapped. When this happens, you begin to resent the other person for putting you in this situation and yourself for allowing it to happen. This breeds feelings of anger, hostility, and resentment; unhealthy emotions that are best avoided at all costs.
Becoming more assertive starts with being crystal clear about your values because as I’ve said in many columns, your values are the basis of your goals and your use of time. Once you are clear about your values and goals and how much time and energy and time you need to meet them, you can start to think about becoming more assertive. I like to think of assertiveness as the key to defending your time and energy, so others do not take them away from you. I teach all of my students and clients a useful technique called the DESC Model that combines both assertiveness and effective verbal communication. It is an excellent technique to use when the source of your stress is someone pressuring you to do something that you simply don’t want to do or don’t have the time or energy to take on. The DESC model has four parts:
1. Describe— paint a verbal picture of the situation or other person’s behavior that is a source of stress. Be as precise as possible and focus on the problem, not the other person.
2. Express— express your feelings about the incident using “I” language.
3. Specify— be specific in identifying alternative ways you would prefer the person to speak or behave.
4. Consequences— identify the consequences that will follow if the person does or does not comply with your wishes. Only discuss consequences that you are willing and able to enforce.
Example: Mary has just walked out of a Garden Club meeting with several friends when the president of the club walks up and announces in a loud voice, “Mary, you did such a great job chairing last year’s Christmas Parade Float Committee, I’d like you to do it again this year.” Mary really does not want the job again. It took so much time and energy that she couldn’t entertain her sister and family members who came to visit her and her husband over the holidays. She actually apologized to her sister and told her that she would never chair the committee again. However, feeling trapped by the club president in front of all of her friends Mary says, “Sure, Erica, I’d be glad to do it.” As soon as she walked away, Mary’s stomach was churning, and she was furious with Erica for putting her on the spot and with herself for agreeing to something she really did not want to do.
Instead, Mary could have used the DESC model to respond to Erica’s request by saying:
1. D—” Erica, when you come up to me in front of several club members and ask me to chair the committee…
2. E—” I feel trapped, angry, and taken advantage of.”
3. S—” I’d prefer that you speak to me about it privately and not in front of other members.”
4. C—” In the future if you don’t change and you do this again, I won’t volunteer for any committees and it will hurt our friendship. If you do change, I still may not volunteer to be the committee chair but at least I’ll work with the committee and we’ll remain friends.”
Becoming more assertive takes time and practice. In many cases you’re trying to unlearn years of being non-assertive. You can actually practice the DESC Model in the mirror using scenarios from your past.
In my next column we’ll shift gears and start to look at Reorganize, the fifth and final line of defense against stress. In the meantime remember to Stress Less and Live More.
Dr. Rich Blonna is an expert in understanding how the mind and body work together in creating and managing stress. He is the author of several stress self-help books and courses and the popular college textbook, Coping With Stress in a Changing World 5th Ed; McGraw-Hill Publishing. He is a retired Professor Emeritus from William Paterson University in New Jersey. For over 25 years he has devoted himself to helping people just like you stress less and live more. www.drrichblonna.com.