I was talking with a friend recently who was having trouble with an ex-boyfriend. Her ex has not been feeling well lately and has asked her for some help. Actually, he demanded her help and he demanded that help on his terms. What this meant for her was re-arranging her schedule and going out of her way to do things like picking up dinner for him and doing some of his shopping. When she was unable to get to it on his timetable, he became angry, sent her some nasty texts and then went out to take care of his needs himself. Afterwards, he continued his barrage of irate text messages putting her on the defensive.
My friend was afraid to be assertive with this man because doing so might cause him to stay angry with her and eventually remove himself from her life altogether. This fear that if she stood up for herself she would end up alone controlled how she related to other people and opened the door for those who would treat her with disrespect. So how do you turn something like this around?
First, it’s realizing the very basis of respect. Respect is honoring that I have a choice in this relationship of ours. That true, you might leave me, but I could just as easily leave you. It’s a 50-50 partnership and you have to put up your half too. It is understanding that you can make requests of other people, but not demands. Because you don’t control others.
In our society today, we LOVE control. It’s in our very language. Just do it. Make it happen. Control your child. Control your dog. Get a grip. Man up. You get the picture. In reality, all we really have control over is ourselves. Only our own thoughts, feelings and behavior - that’s it. So, when you’re faced with a person who has forgotten this concept, in my opinion, it becomes my job to remind you. Not in a mean way, but in an assertive way.
Assertiveness is merely stating what I am and am not willing to accept. No anger, no harshness is necessary. It’s simply a statement. It comes from a decision I have made that I am not willing to take on the responsibility of another adult’s emotions.
I have this saying that I use a lot in practice and I wrote it down for my friend and told her to put it in a place where she will see it each day. The saying goes like this: “It is a privilege to be in my presence.” Think about this statement. Think about what it says and what it means. Being in my presence, getting the benefit of my knowledge, experience, empathy, you name it is a privilege - not a right. It is something to be honored, not expected. It is not guaranteed. Therefore, in order to get my presence, you have to show me that you understand that it is a privilege. At the same time, it is a privilege for me to be in another person’s presence and I must act accordingly as well.
So when you look back at my friend’s story, you can see that her ex-boyfriend did not treat her presence like a privilege. He also placed the responsibility for his emotional health in her lap. Why cling to a relationship that has so little respect for you? Sometimes cutting the chord of the old, makes way for the new. But if you want to (or have to) keep someone like this around, you have the power to decide how the interactions go by your control over your presence. When the ex became angry and decided to send nasty texts, my friend has the power to delete them. If the ex came over pounding on her door for an explanation, she has the power not to open it. When he asks for help, she has the right to decide the limits of that help. She has power because she has choice.