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.
But intimate private and personal relationships, whether at home or work, present harder challenges, because you rely on the individual daily. My mom’s nurse – an employee we depend upon because my mom, who lives with us, is slowly dying from terminal cancer – came highly recommended and certainly had significant strengths. However, she repeatedly showed up late, spent hours on her cell phone, and grumbled about changing Mom’s diaper or giving her a bath. She interfered with my children and her interruptions made it impossible for me to get work done in my home office. After several reviews and suggestions, the final straw came when through carelessness she started a fire in the laundry room – risking my mother’s and children’s lives. I called the healthcare agency she works for, and explained the situation. The manager offered to fire her himself.
“That’s okay,” I found myself telling him. “I can handle it.”
I wasn’t sure I could. Would she yell at me, cry, spit in my face? I took a deep breath and quietly, calmly walked up to her. “Thank you for all you’ve done, but this just is not working out,” I said pleasantly. “Today is your last day. I need the key.”
I wish someone, way back in my 10-year-old days, had taken me aside and told me how easy it actually is to grow up.