by Leslie Moragan Steiner
Amazing how long a woman can get by in life without basic assertiveness skills. I got by as a kid because I was smart, responsible and popular, with lots of friends. I turned into a hard-working, perfectionistic adolescent with lots of A’s and lots of boyfriends. I did well at Harvard and Wharton business school and my career sailed along afterwards at Johnson & Johnson and The Washington Post. My love life did too -- no shortage of interesting, attractive men. No college or business school class, no therapist or leadership training course, ever taught me how to say no. Pleasing my parents, teachers, professors, bosses and boyfriends always took priority. In fact, maybe I got good grades and coveted promotions and plenty of dates precisely because I WASN’T assertive. As a life strategy, unconscious obsequiousness had its benefits.
Mostly. And only to a point.
Looking back, it’s clear that I spent decades adoring a sister who was a first class bully. A serious, long-term boyfriend manipulated and controlled me. After breaking up with him, I married a man who worshipped me – and physically abused me. Countless times I fumed silently while a taxi driver blasted music in my ears or the airline passenger next to me cracked gum, snored or cranked his iPod. After reaching the manager level professionally, I struggled mightily to deliver “areas of improvement” reviews to direct reports or disappointing news about raises and advancement. I couldn’t tell an older male colleague why his jokes about maternity leave being a vacation were offensive and sexist.
I knew how to suffer in silence – to tolerate irritating strangers, subpar treatment at work and abusive love at home. I also knew how to throw a good tantrum when my anger boiled over. However I could not handle confrontation of any variety – I lacked the ability to stand up to anyone. I had no idea how to look someone in the eye and calmly say, “Hey, this just isn’t working, and here’s why.”
Fortunately, motherhood surfaced new strengths. As a mom, I learned how to protect my kids and stand up for them. But that wasn’t the same as standing up for ME. Eventually, being happy as a mom made me less tolerant of being a pushover. I found it too painful to live with myself without the ability to stand up for myself. So about a year ago I decided to make a simple change: to focus on taking care of myself, rather than pleasing everyone else. And it’s working.
Baby steps came first. In response to an unexpected email from a close relative who has badmouthed me for years, I responded simply “I don’t want someone as dishonest and mean-spirited as you in my life; please don’t contact me again.” With a feeling I can only describe as joy, I blocked her email address on my spam blacklist. When an obnoxious neighbor called to complain that our “lost kitten” signs posted in the alley amounted to litter, I calmly explained we’d take them down when the kitten was found, and to please not call again. I said no when my father-in-law, fork in hand, reached for my chocolate mousse.