“The opposite of self-assertiveness is self-abnegation–abandoning or submerging your personal values, judgment, and interests. Some people tell themselves this is a virtue. It is a ‘virtue’ that corrodes self-esteem.”
Nathaniel Branden, psychotherapist
It’s not easy to set limits. But it’s necessary. And it’s not always easy to say “no” to someone’s request. But it’s a critical component of your own self-respect.
I had to learn that all over again when I was in college. I joined a fraternity because I really wanted to make more friends and be more deeply involved in campus life. But I was super naive. I didn’t know that fraternities, parties, sororities, and alcohol were almost inextricably linked together, and I didn’t drink. Not a drop, ever.
I didn’t expect the huge amount of pressure put on me at every party. Everyone had a glass of beer in his hand except me. I had my Coke, which really seemed to rile people. Almost without exception, every guy in my fraternity approached me and said, “Hey man. Get with the party … Have a few drinks … Loosen up … Be a man … You’re not a kid anymore … and … What’s wrong with you?” To them, it looked as though I was committing a cardinal sin, not drinking at a frat party.
For a solid year I responded pleasantly, but firmly and assertively. I simply said, “I have no desire to drink, and I don’t choose to drink. But thanks for your concern.” I’m sure I came across as somewhat “strange” or “out of it”.
But after a year of my assertive responses, something unexpected started to happen. As my fraternity partied with other fraternities and sororities, and as other people approached me and hassled me for not drinking like the rest of them at the party, my fraternity brothers intervened. They stood up for me and told the other person or persons who was pushing me to drink, saying, “Hey, Alan is cool. He’s just fine the way he is. Lay off your criticism and let him enjoy the party”.
I moved from suspicion to respect in the minds of my fraternity brothers because I chose to be assertive and stand up for myself. And the same thing will happen to you if you set limits and respond with assertiveness. Here are a few guidelines I suggest:
1. Listen to your feelings.
According to psychologist, Dr. Maria Arapakis, “Feelings are often the first indication that you need to set limits.” Welcome your upset feelings as a reminder that there’s a problem that needs your attention.
For example, if your auto mechanic promises to have your car fixed by 5 p.m., but when you go to pick it up he says it’s not finished and won’t be finished for another day or two, you would probably be upset. Your upset feelings come from the fact that you expect a promise to be fulfilled, but just in case it can’t be, you expect to be informed with plenty of advance notice.
Your feelings tell you that you need to be assertive. You need to set limits as to what you will and will not accept.
2. Be specific.
General limits get general compliance. But the more specific you are in describing your limits to others, the more likely they are to respect those limits.
One of our adult children and his family were always late for every family occasion, dinner, holiday, or get together. No exaggeration. They were always late. In the early years my wife and I would tell them when the dinner would be served and then wait for them to arrive one or two hours after that time. Little hints and little reprimands did not change their tardy behavior.
Nothing worked until we gave them specific limits. We said, “Christmas dinner will be served at 5:00 p.m. We certainly hope you will arrive by that time, but if not, we and all the other guests are going ahead with dinner without you. When you arrive, you are more than welcome to go in the kitchen by yourself, find what leftovers might still be available, and heat them up.”
After one or two times of arriving at our house extremely late and seeing that we were following through on what we said we were going to do, they began to arrive on time.
3. Act rather than react.
It’s often easier to set effective limits when you don’t do it at the very moment the problem is happening. Rather than wait for that coworker who continually turns in his paper work late to strike again, bring the subject up during a friendly lunch. Or mention it casually the next time you see the person.
This approach makes perfect sense because you will not be reacting emotionally to a problem behavior while you’re trying to communicate your limits. It’s also highly respectful, because you’re giving people a chance to react to your limits before the problem arises.
And you can even set anticipatory limits when you see the need for limits in the near future. For example, if a person drops by your office and asks for some of your time, tell them the truth. You might say, “I have five minutes to talk. After that I’ll have to get back to the project I’m working on.”
4. Separate intent from results.
As Arapakis notes, “Sometimes you’re reluctant to set limits with others because you believe their intentions are good ones and you don’t want to offend them or hurt their feelings.” When this occurs, tell them directly. Tell them you assume their intentions are good but their behavior does not work for you. It might sound like this: “I assume you just want to be helpful, but I really do want to work this problem out by myself”.
On the other hand, YOU may have some good intentions that could be misinterpreted. In these situations, tell the other person what your intentions ARE. For example, “I want to prevent hard feelings from building. That’s why I’m bringing this up” And tell the other person what your intentions ARE NOT. For example, “I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life. I do need to tell you, however, that I’m not willing to cover for you when you come to work late.”
5. Use tactful truth rather than excuses
It may seem easier to let people down easy by giving them an excuse when you don’t want to do something. But excuses have a way of painting you into a corner where your lies and deception become increasingly obvious.
If your friend keeps asking you to go out and do something and you don’t want to go out, it may seem easier to lie and say, “I can’t. You know, the kids and all. Besides that, I can’t find a babysitter.” Your friend may say, “No problem, I’ll find a sitter for you.” Then you’ve got to find another lie to cover up your first one.
Excuses, of course, are the age-old way men and women have turned down unwelcome dates. Making up little excuses and telling lies rather than setting truthful limits. They’ll say, “I’m booked that night … I’m not available that day … I’m too busy … and … That’s the night I’ll be washing my hair.” There comes the time when the suitor finally asks, “Well, when are you free?” You’re forced to admit your lies or give in.
You’re either living your life or someone else’s. If you set limits, you’re living your life. If you don’t set limits, you can forget about feeling empowered and self-respecting. I hope you choose to set more limits that are respectful and appropriate.