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Dealing with people who react aggressively to assertiveness
Hi everyone, I'm in a bit of a conundrum -- but I also figure that this situation is probably quite common, so I thought I'd put my question into words, and hopefully the responses will help other people too.
I've recently realised that I am overly passive in a lot of life contexts (work, relationships, etc) because I am frightened that others will react poorly or even aggressively if I am assertive. That's to say, I often hide any sort of negative feeling, criticism or disagreement, even when it could be useful to a project, or when it clouds communication (e.g. not being able to say "I don't want to keep on dating you"), because I'm frightened that other people will reject or get angry at me.
I think that this is because when I was a child and teenager, and in fact even now, my mum reacted very badly if I expressed my feelings or thoughts or even did random actions without her pre-approval. For example, when I was 21, she literally went ballistic and locked herself in the bathroom because I'd gotten a haircut (like mid-back length to long bob, nothing wild) without telling/asking her beforehand.
She also gets either openly angry or "huffy" if I plainly express an opinion, disagree with her opinion, or refuse something. Previously, she has also threatened self-harm and suicide, and in rare cases threatened to harm me, in response to any more "intense" conflict.
Anyway, my concern is that I've been reading about how it's important to be more assertive and not passive or passive-aggressive, and this has been helping me with contributing more productively at work, managing/ending relationships in a clear yet respectful manner, etc.
However, I am wondering what to do about someone who is almost guaranteed to react aggressively to normal assertiveness.
For example, if my mum asks me a question about my sex life and I say, "I'd prefer not to discuss my sex life with my mum", I know she will go ballistic. But I would actually prefer not to discuss that (and other matters) with her, as she doesn't approve of homosexuality and I have recently been dating a woman.
Similarly, in the past when I have said, "I am not going to discuss religion with you", she has continually talked to me about religion and provoked me by saying I am a bad person, etc, for not being religious.
Does anyone know what to do about this kind of situation? It doesn't seem like there is any way I can refuse certain requests without my mum going nuts.
I gather that this post is mainly about your mother that disapproves of your lifestyle and life choices. That being said, you have two options:
- You can get into a ding-dong argument with your mother over matters that are none of her business, or
- You can please your mother by telling her what she wants to hear.
Yes, you would be lying, and when she finds out (and she will) you can then explain that your personal life is not open for discussion.
There is no easy way out of your dilemma. You just need to be more assertive.
Remember that not everyone is your mother. She sounds like someone who enjoys control, which is why you "defying" her (in her view) gets that reaction. Unfortunately, you've spent your life living with her and now you've changed yourself to be more appeasing. The fact is, being assertive is not the same as being antagonistic. Being assertive usually does not get such a huge, negative reaction from people. So don't hold back when you're at work or in a relationship.
With regards to your mother, I'm inclined to agree with Mr Paul. I'm not sure how close you are to your mother, but faced with that kind of a situation, I'd have lied to appease her rather than to perpetually be in an argument with her or be forced to relinquish my right to privacy. It's important to recognise that her behaviour is rather extreme (the haircut being a perfect example of this), and that dealing with her may need you to be more strategic than assertive.
I fear that the difference between assertive and aggressive is common, where people who are aggressive believe they are merely being assertive. There are multiple sources on handling aggression and conflict, it can be a good idea to read up on dealing with 'problem customers' for techniques which may help you "manage" your mother and other conflicts.
Just for clarity:
ready or likely to attack or confront;
having or showing a confident and forceful personality.
Thank you for your post; I can see that you've gotten a lot of really lovely and helpful responses here.
I didn't want to add to them but I thought I'd post anyway because I can very much relate to what you're going through. I have a very difficult relationship with my parents (and that's an understatement), so any inch of me trying to be assertive is met with a lot of backlash.
The idea of saying "I don't want to talk about my sex life" is a totally natural boundary but it is hard to implement. Is there another way you can reframe that - something a little in the middle? I know when I've been asked personal questions I've worked on the tactic of giving short and sweet answers with distractions, like "Yeah it's fine, how great is this cake?" or "It's good, we got some great sheets the other day and they were on sale!" It can take a bit of navigating but I'm certain there's a line somewhere when you can hold up your boundary without too much sacrifice.
Hope this helps
I have just found this post and am really late to the above but I wanted to bump it anyway as assertiveness is something I have been working on.
Re the above though I would agree that there can be a strategic option that needs to be utilised in some situations. Some people will not respond reasonably to reasonable assertiveness. And it is not always as simple as just walk away then. Sometimes the person you are dealing with has a lot of power over you/ you just need their help. Parents are a good example. If they say it's my way or the highway and you're still a child unable to make a living relying on them for shelter you will probably have to be strategic whether that is dodge them somehow or sacrifice your assertiveness for a finite period. An employer that you need your job from is another. A lot of books on assertiveness only provide the options of be assertive - correct or be unassertive - incorrect. One book I have found that does acknowledge it's not always black and white and people find themselves in complex situations is Unf*ck Your Boundaries by Faith G. Harper.