Can You Be Both Bravely Assertive AND Compassionate?
Updated: Apr 4, 2020
In a word, yes - even if that sounds paradoxical.
As I often say, one of the kindest and most compassionate things we can do for a fellow human being is to bravely not enable his/her darkness in any form it takes. Sometimes that requires a bit of "tough love," which is both assertive and compassionate, and addresses harmful and unproductive actions and behaviors without attacking the person engaging in them, who is imperfect just like we all are. Pretty much everyone has uncleared ingrained shadow behaviors, biases and blindspots, and if discussing these obstacles to increased conscious awareness and ethical intelligence are extended without malice, the potential for making matters worse can be lessened - even though you are speaking up bravely and firmly.
It's all about the energy behind how and what you are conveying to them, and being responsible and accountable for the impact you have. If you come from strength and kindness, even though their ego may react defensively, you can plant a seed of awareness that may sprout and blossom over time. (Please note: if the individual is abusive in any way and/or suffers from mental health issues, don't try to reason with them - the assistance of professional help is an absolute must.)
Cultivating a non-judgmental perspective toward the people and situations in your life (as well as toward yourself) can be a challenge for those who confuse clear-minded, healthy, discriminating observation with damning "unspiritual" judgment. Many people confuse loving-kindness/metta with always living to please, serve and submissively fulfill the wants, needs and desires of others, even if it means compromising their own wants, needs, and desires - and even their own integrity. They struggle with how to relate to those who cause/caused them harm and can wind up either being an enabler, an abuser, or being passive/aggressive (sometimes all three).
As I've also written many times before, tolerating abuse of any kind – no matter how damaged their abuser may be - should never be equated with demonstrating compassion for them, as it winds up as enabling the abuse.
I've also witnessed people who come off as all "love and light" on the surface because they're crafted a perfect "spiritual appearance" but who, just below the surface, have exhibited some of the nastiest behaviors I've ever observed – and this includes some famous spiritual/self-help celebrities who've unfortunately gotten side-tracked by their ego. This is extremely disturbing to those close to them because this person doesn't "walk their talk" in their private life, and who have crafted a public persona that is admired and revered. Individuals who've gotten seduced by power can be particularly controlling. They tend to surround themselves with "yes" people who will not challenge them (even if they know full well what is going on), because their need for approval, position and/or sheer survival is stronger than their need to be assertive, so they give their power away – and then often take their anger and frustration out on someone else. It's all quite painful to witness.
It's critical to note the four main ways humans handle and communicate situations of internal and external crisis and conflict with another, which (according to Erik Erikson's eight-stage psychosocial development model), begin developing during early childhood after infancy and prior to the age of six years old when we are highly suggestible on the subconscious level and our autonomy with parents/parental figures/authority is a key factor. The chart below encapsulates the four main ingrained responsive behaviors and their common effects
Those who grew up in dysfunctional families and haven't done a lot of inner work often struggle to communicate effectively in relationships as adults. They may be passive and not stand up for themselves, aggressive and attempt to steamroll over others, or passive/aggressive, smiling while sabotaging others behind their backs (as well as themselves on a subconscious level) which manifests its destructiveness in all areas of their lives.
Passivity is when the person develops a communication pattern of avoiding expressing their opinions, feelings or boundaries (and sometimes apologizes for even having them), not protecting their rights, or identifying and pursuing their needs. Passive communication is often borne from fear or low self-esteem. As a result, passive individuals don't respond overtly to hurtful or anger-provoking situations. Instead, they are mute in the moment and allow frustrations and annoyances to grow and fester internally, often not cognizant of the rising build-up of emotional pressure. But once they have hit their tolerance limit, they are prone to explosive outbursts, which are usually out of proportion to the triggering incident or person. After the outburst, however, they feel shame, guilt, and confusion, so they return to being passive. Passive people often feel anxious because life seems out of their control, depressed because they feel stuck and hopeless, resentful because their needs are not being met, confused because they repress their deepest feelings, and unable to function as mature, healthy adults because their on-going deep issues are never properly addressed.
Aggressiveness is when the person develops a communication pattern in which they express their feelings and opinions and needs in a way that is abusive energetically (verbally, psychologically and physically) and violates others. Aggressive communicators are dominating, use humiliation as a control mechanism, criticize, blame, and attack, are impulsive, have low patience and frustration tolerance, speak in a loud, demanding, and overbearing voice, threaten, are poor listeners, interrupt frequently and use blaming “you” statements. Aggressive communication is also an extension of low self-esteem (often caused by past abuse), unhealed emotional wounds, and feelings of powerlessness.
Passive/aggressiveness may be the most insidious and damaging in terms of long-term effects into adulthood. In Erikson's psychosocial development model, if adults who had a major role in a child's life (especially from toddler stage to age six) were overly protective, domineering, and/or unsupportive of the child's self-expression, individuality, initiative, interests and talents, the child's ability to be assertive while growing up and as an adult is often severely compromised, as self-doubt, dependency and shame take root and grow. The young child and adolescent then learns to rebel via sabotage and getting back at his or her parents/authority figures covertly with a passive/aggressive coping and survival mechanism, and, unless resolved, will go on to sabotage themselves in their adult relationships, family, education and careers by rebelling against authority and punishing people in a similar passive/aggressive manner, subconsciously trying prove that they are unworthy, incompetent and inferior just like their parents and authority figures taught them to believe, thereby ensuring failure, and not seeing their self-sabotaging behaviors have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Passive/aggression can manifest itself as ingrained patterns of helplessness, procrastination, stubbornness, resentment, or deliberate failure to accomplish tasks or goals for which one is directly responsible. It is a defense mechanism that is usually only partly conscious. People who are passive-aggressive also often communicate with self-sabotaging actions: they will take forever to get ready for an important event they don't want to attend so that it is almost over by the time they arrive, or show up inappropriately dressed for a job interview, ensuring they won't get hired, etc.
The healthy alternative to positive assertive behavior is embodied when you bravely and firmly stand up for yourself without violating the rights of others.
Assertive communication is an indicator of more balanced self-esteem, as assertive individuals value themselves, their time and energy, their mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being, and are strong self-advocates while being concurrently respectful of the needs and rights of others. Assertiveness is not aggressiveness, as the above chart illustrates, so any concerns that transcending old ingrained patterns with mindful assertiveness skills will make someone rude or pushy is unfounded.
Assertive communicators state boundaries, feelings, needs and wants clearly, appropriately, and respectfully, are observant, grounded and discriminating when getting to know others, communicate respect, listen attentively without constantly interrupting, feel in control, are able to say both "no" and "yes" when it's the appropriate and truthful response, have solid eye contact, speak in a calm, clear tone of voice, experience genuine compassion, empathy and connection with others (even with people who have wronged them), don't allow others to abuse, drain their energy or manipulate them, and stand up for themselves with firmness and without hostility. Those who practice mindful assertiveness are not addicted to approval, and when they stand up for themselves they aren't coming from a negatively judgmental position.
Assertiveness is critical In order to build healthy relationships: to be clear, direct, and consciously aware about how we communicate to others, and how we allow others to communicate to us, as we teach others how to treat us by our own thoughts, choices, behaviors and actions. You are only treated with respect if you hold steady with courageous, unwavering assertiveness and enforcement of the important rules, needs and boundaries you've set – and that includes self-respect.
The good news is that many people can reverse or neutralize the effects of the damage done (and then self-perpetuated over the years) by choosing to deliberately learn and embrace healthy, compassionate, self-assertiveness, and working with the conscious as well as the subconscious mind.
Shifting out of deeply ingrained passivity, aggressiveness or passive/aggressiveness into mindful assertiveness requires connecting with that part of oneself that was triggered into creating any of the three harmful communication styles years ago. What is often referred to as inner child therapy has many interpretations, tactics and practitioners, including some so-called experts whose methods may not always work in shifting the person away from on-going negativity. For those who wish to be a perpetual victim, holding on to past hurts they feel justified to cling to because the child within was wounded will use it as excuse, shield or weapon to continue to behave in manipulative, broken and angry ways. Suggesting anyone hang onto volatile emotions even after surviving the darkest events possible will never help to facilitate their patient or client's healing and journey to wholeness. In cases of extreme abuse and trauma, a gifted psychotherapist is essential to help the person navigate their way and gradually transcend the internal scars that lead them into passivity, aggression or passive/aggressive communication patterns.
For others less damaged but still living with the negative effects in terms of how they communicate with others as adults, Conscious Awareness Skills Training (including mindfulness and self-reflective practices) can help them to be fully in the now. They can then see their unproductive, reactive communication patterns more clearly, and regardless of what happened during childhood, choose whether to continue to bring the past into the present and future or to let it go, giving themselves the power, freedom and permission to finally be done with it; to forgive themselves and possibly even those whose dysfunctional actions and behaviors prompted them into adopting negative communication coping patterns, and begin to re-mind themselves consciously and proactively as they move forward.
On the subconscious level, these skills are extremely valuable tools in giving the mind new and more productive suggestions than the ones that were allowed to formulate and thrive when the person was a child. A well-educated therapist, coach or adviser can help the client to connect with their inner childhood self and bring in positive suggestions and support in a manner that empowers the adult self to build a strong bond with all components of their unique inner mosaic, encompassing all stages of their earlier development and becoming an assertive, compassionate, brave communicator with a stronger self-identity.
© 2020, Suzanne Matthiessen, innerevolution media. All rights reserved.