want – must – should

I picked up a book yesterday on assertiveness training. Something about the title made me pick it up; it is called When I say no, I feel guilty by Manuel J. Smith. Much as I hate to admit it, that really is me. It doesn’t matter what I’m asked, I’ll try to accommodate; especially if I’ve agreed the first time. I occasionally do work up the courage to say no, or to decline something I don’t want to do, but not without struggling with a whole load of guilt first.

Smith, as a learning and behaviour therapist, reckons that much of social miscommunication occurs because people don’t assert themselves properly — properly being the operative word. He writes of non-assertiveness as a result of the kinds of socialisation we all receive as children (to be polite, etc.) as well as mixed and confusing signals (e.g. when mum said if you were bad, the bogeyman would come to get you). According to Smith, if only we said what we wanted (Mum wants you to clean up your room) and allowed the other to differ (I want to be a lazy slob), communication would be much more honest and open to fairer negotiation. There would be less guilt (Mum will be so disappointed if…) and presumably less neurosis all round.

I’m not big on self-help books — I have the right to change my mind! See below. 🙂 — but I like the fact that Smith doesn’t patronise the reader. He doesn’t assume you’re a mess and he doesn’t so much tell you what to do as he does with presenting his argument through examples from his classes. Some suggestions are hard to process though: for instance, he advocates not apologising for mistakes, only to agree you’ve made one and take responsibility for it. It’s hard to break a lifetime of conditioning. Why should we want to be so unsociable? What’s wrong with apologising? Nothing, if the apology is genuine, but often the professed self-effacement is a disguise for manipulation, conscious or not — e.g. ‘I’m sorry I’m so weak you have to help me out’; ‘I’m sorry I’m so mean as to ask you to put my needs first’.

Success at self-assertion, if I have summed up his book accurately, stems from the basic premise that we are the best judge of our actions, desires and intentions; not mum, not the bogeyman, and certainly not other people, however well-meaning. He offers what he calls ‘The Bill of Assertive Rights’, which I will reiterate here for my own benefit:

The Bill of Assertive Rights

  1. You have the right to judge your own behavior, thoughts, and emotions, and to take the responsibility for their initiation and consequences upon yourself.
  2. You have the right to offer no reasons or excuses to justify your behavior.
  3. You have the right to judge whether you are responsible for finding the solutions to other people’s problems.
  4. You have the right to change your mind.
  5. You have the right to make mistakes — and be responsible for them.
  6. You have the right to say “I don’t know.”
  7. You have the right to be independent of the goodwill of others before coping with them.
  8. You have the right to be illogical in making decisions.
  9. You have the right to say “I don’t understand.”
  10. You have the right to say “I don’t care.”

You have the right to say no, without feeling guilty.

I will try and explore some of these rights in the next few posts, but for now, the lesson of self-assertion is to negotiate between what we want, and what we must take into account. For instance, I really want to go shopping, but I must negotiate with the fact that I have no money, if I want to stay out of financial trouble. I’d like to think of the must aspect of this relation as something akin to mindful awareness that balances raw desire, or rather taking responsibility for it.

In contrast, shoulds, Smith argues, are what causes guilt: ‘I should be more frugal’; ‘I should give more of my money to charity’; ‘I should not be so frivolous’. Guilt induced by shoulds tend to stem from repressed anxieties from previous conditioning — ‘I shouldn’t be so frivolous with money since mum and dad never had any.’ So when I finally break the bank on a shopping spree, it’s easy to blame mum and dad, even unconsciously, for my guilt, rather than taking responsibility for what I have done. Replace ‘shopping’ with any number of human activities and you have jobs for several generations of therapists.

Oh boy. The next weeks’ self-discovery should be fun. I really want to do it though.

Smith, Manuel J. When I say no, I feel guilty. Toronto: Bantam, 1975.


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