Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Assertiveness, the Middle Path Between Aggression and Passivity

         My father told me this story.

        People in India complained to the guru that the snake had been frightening them by blocking their pathway to the market with its slithering, hissing and biting if it gets close enough.  The guru talked to the snake telling it to cool down and not frighten the people needlessly.  The snake listened. 

      The following week, the guru found the snake weak and badly beaten.  When asked what had happened, the snake explained, “You told me to cool down, so I did.  The people took advantage of this and started beating me.”

     “You can’t just lie down and allow the people to beat you until you are weak.  You have to defend yourself from getting abused.  However, do not go out of your way to scare them especially if they are not bothering you. But when they get ready to bother you, scare them a little so they will leave you alone.” 

       There is quite a bit of wisdom in that story.  It is the story of aggression, passivity and the middle ground between the two, assertiveness.

    We have no difficulty recognizing when we have been passive.  We allowed ourselves to be victimized by an aggressor.  We complied with the demands of the aggressor on something we fully oppose for different reasons: 1) to please or appease,  2) we succumbed to the pressure to agree to the demand although we protest strongly against it in our heart, 3) we were completely dominated through coercion that left us feeling defeated.

      We think that when we do something to please we earn points for ourselves with the aggressor.  We do not.  The aggressor is heartless.  He thinks only of himself.  If he demands today, he will demand again tomorrow and the next day.  We keep giving in to appease but we never really please a tyrant.  While we are pleasing somebody else against our will, we are selling our soul.  We no longer know who we are and we hate ourselves.

     The aggressor uses well calculated words to pierce at our sensitive spots.  Insults are hurled.  Put-down’s  are thrown and we are called names to humiliate us.  As victims, we accept these poisoned arrows as we feel hurt and sometimes reduce ourselves to tears.  We were completely defenseless and unprepared for the assault. It happens so fast and before we can think of the appropriate way to respond, it is over. We leave pretending to be cordial but in reality we are nursing a wound.

      To fight aggressively is not the answer.  Aggression feeds on aggression and the fight escalates further to something uncontrollable.  We have to find the balance between aggression and passivity.  That is assertiveness.

      Having experienced insults from certain persons, we avoid any interactions with these people.  We do not have to wrestle with lions unless we are inside a lion’s den.  To avoid fighting with lions, we stay out of the lion’s den.  (1) This is the first step.

        The next step  is to learn to stop the pain  (2).  When we learn to stop the pain we now feel, we are just a step away from preventing things to cause us pain in the future.  We are our own worse enemy.  We let people’s words bother us.  Our recurring thoughts replay what this person said or did and we get fired up inside with hatred for the person as though it just happened yesterday.  It happened ten years ago. The fact is people say negative things out of ignorance.  They are really reflecting what is inside them, they are talking about themselves.  Every insult made against us could just as easily have been said against them.  The best path to take is to ignore them.  Do not take things personally. (3)

       Say very little or none at all during a conflict.  If you have to speak, say it with firmness and determination in your voice that  you  choose not to engage in petty conflicts or useless arguments.  Say you have work to do and leave.  Remember that the purpose of an argument is to win.  Since nobody really wants to lose, the loser for this particular round only retreats to plan the next attack to get even. No conflict has been resolved and the bitter after taste of the altercation lingers for a long time.

        I find it therapeutic to write in my journal a record of the event as it happened.  (4) I write spontaneously including all details and how I felt.  A miraculous thing happens while I write:- an intuitive voice from within offers an advice on what I could have done.  Sometimes this voice gives me insight as to what the other person’s perspective was that I missed. 

     There are books on  assertiveness  training. There is one specifically on “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense.” (5)  It is not as important to be armed with the skills of verbal come back’s to insults as it is to build an invisible shield of peace around us to protect us from feeling the pain.  In the end we visualize  the Lord of Peace giving His blessing to us saying:

Peace be unto you.
My peace, I give unto you.
Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.
Let not your heart be troubled
Neither let it be afraid.                       John 14:27

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