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Week 7, Session 2: Assertiveness and Communication

Hello and welcome to Week 7, Session 2 of Bloom’s course on ‘Coping with Domestic Abuse’.

We’ve been through a lot together and built on plenty of intense, difficult, and often surprising concepts and feelings. 

If this is the first time you’re reading this, welcome! We’re so happy to have you here. However if you’re just starting out please do head back to the first session. We build on material throughout the weeks, and we don’t want you to miss anything!

You might need your thought diary for the homework this week, so take a moment to find it if you don’t have it with you already. 

Last session, we discussed healthy relationships - and one of the things we touched on within that scope was about communication. Looking back, this is actually a familiar thread we’ve seen weaved through a lot of weeks of our course. We are going to tie that all together today to talk about a form of behaviour that can help others know us and meet us with love. It can also lessen that feeling of dread or guilt as we wonder whether or not others truly understand us and what we’re looking for. We’ve brought up the word before. Today is about Assertiveness.

The goals for this session are:

  • To gain a better understanding of assertiveness.

  • To learn practical ways of being assertive.

  • To gain more confidence in being assertive! 

  • To deepen our understanding of the difference between assertiveness and aggression.
    → As we covered in our Week 6 session on anger, aggression and assertiveness are not the same! Aggression is about lashing out. Assertiveness is about being grounded. The malevolence your abusers model, along with the will they enforce, is never the same as standing up for yourself and your beliefs.

    Their ego is not the same as our confidence! 

However, before we really get going, we want to state from the start that learning skills of assertive behaviour is only fully possible if you’re in a safe place. It can be unsafe or even dangerous to assert yourself when you cannot escape, and your safety is the most important thing. This is why our bodies default to our 3 f’s in the face of fear!
Only you can know for certain whether assertiveness is something you want to practice in your home. 
Still, we want to give a reminder for those who are still living with their abusers. Remember that you have already developed the skill set to attend to your abuser’s needs. Your communication style suits your current environment, which is a radical and powerful way that keeps you from harm. You are amazing. Never forget it.
All the same, we can pay attention to today’s session and note down the assertive behaviours we want to practice outside. 

Now, let’s begin with our grounding exercise!

If you feel comfortable, close your eyes. Now think about a calming colour and as you take a deep breath in, imagine the air that is coming into your body is that calming shade, such as blue/purple/yellow. Imagine that colour calming every part of your body inside you. Now as you exhale, imagine a strong colour like red or orange coming out - along with your stress, anxiety, fears. Do this 3 times. 

Fun question: If you could suddenly have one superpower, what would it be?

So, what is assertiveness?
Too often in society, we associate assertiveness with getting your own way, with crushing others - with a level of narcissism that aligns with the entitlement of abuse. It blew our minds to find instead that assertiveness is its own creature, born of respect for others rather than hatred. 

Assertiveness means stating your feelings, wants, needs, and boundaries in the following ways:

  • Clearly
  • Respectfully
  • Honestly
  • With ownership
  • With conviction

It's the ability to speak up for ourselves, in a positive way, and allowing others to know us fully: whatever our shames, fears, or doubts.
Of course, this is also what can make being assertive so scary after abuse. Not only is it unfamiliar to many survivors, and therefore very uncomfortable, assertiveness can make us feel rightly exposed. Yet, this is also the form of communication that gives us the best shot to engage with others in a respectful way, while always respecting ourselves.
At first glance, assertiveness may seem like a selfish behaviour but it's actually the opposite - it’s all about mutual trust.
Assertiveness is a kindness. Today, let’s consider the ways we can speak in kindness to our deepest selves, and in kindness to those who best want to look out for us, and to join us in true adult relationships. 
This is what can be so frustrating about surviving abusive relationships. Once we get used to putting our needs aside, we often fail to form or else to recognise real adult attachments. We also fear communicating our passions effectively - and we fear the consequences when we do. This often leads to not getting what we want from other situations and people, and it can negatively impact our quality of life. 

  • Have you ever found yourself wanting to say something but you hold yourself back to avoid a confrontation or argument? Even with people who are not your abuser?
  • Or maybe, the opposite, where you get so angry that you have an outburst of rage, and then feel regretful about it afterward? 

There are a number of ways we can begin to assert ourselves. First, let's consider what assertiveness involves: 

  • Being clear and calm about what we feel, what we need, and how it can be achieved. 
  • We want to use ‘I’ statements when explaining these feelings to acknowledge we are coming into this with our own perspective, without enforcing our views over another’s.
    These ‘I’ messages are a technique best applied when trying to change a situation that is unsatisfactory. It’s not appropriate for making or refusing a request. For example, your flatmate has left the house really messy so you can say to them, “I feel anxious when there are too many dirty plates in the kitchen. I feel like I can’t relax at home, as I’m aware of the mess. I’d really appreciate it if you could try and keep on top of things so the flat feels cleaner for both of us.”
    Of course, an abuser would have taken advantage of this in the past - in deflecting our views as falsehoods. But, if we are talking with someone who does not value our feelings as we speak them, or who only uses these feelings to belittle us, we can remind ourselves of their disrespect. 
  • Saying ‘yes’ when we want to, and saying ‘no’ when we mean ‘no’. We should not feel the need to agree to do something just to please someone else. It’s tricky - but we can practice it, and shake off those feelings of guilt! Like any action, it gets easier to do over time. And your time has value - you can decide when and how you use it. It is a right and dignity.
  • Being able to talk openly about yourself and being able to listen to others. 
  • Determining your goals and deciding exactly what we want to accomplish or change.
  • Negotiating and compromising, but only where appropriate and when it does not cross any personal boundaries.

Assertive Communication isn’t just the content of discussion, however; it’s also how we put our thoughts across. When we decide we want to be assertive as survivors of abuse, it can be helpful to:

  • Be honest with yourself about our own feelings. Ask yourself what you really feel, not what you think someone else wants you to feel. 
  • Repeat and rehearse your speech before doing it for real - practise with someone else if it helps!
  • Try not to raise our voices. Be calm, firm, and in control while sticking to your point.
  • If you meet objections, keep repeating your message while listening to and respecting the other point of view.
  • If the other person responds angrily, drop the issue and leave. They are not in the place to have a true and peaceful conversation with you. There is not the middle-ground of that mutual respect
  • If the other person tries to divert the topic, point this out calmly and repeat the message. If they persist in their point of view without kindness, they are merely trying to protect their own ego and sense of self-righteousness over your right to speak. 
  • Do not apologise. 

This last one can feel like the hardest - given our histories and, often, because of cultural socialisation - but we always have the right to say ‘no’. Sometimes we worry that saying ‘no’ might upset someone, but it is always better to say ‘no’ than to do something you don’t want to and to resent the person you’re with.

Another technique for being assertive that we wanted to share is called the Broken Record. This means simply repeating what you want over and over again without getting angry, irritated, or loud. You repeat your position and hold firm.

In assertiveness, we observe the situation in a non-judgemental way, explain how it makes us feel, identify our needs and make a request for change. Say it out loud- or write it out: Observe, Feel, Identify, Request! 

We may face criticism when we do communicate, which for those of us who struggle with self-esteem can be hard to hear. One technique we can use to cope with criticism is called “fogging”, which is agreeing with the criticism someone is levelling at you, but holding fast to your desires despite that criticism. Whatever you need to do to feel comfortable in speaking your truths is the right one! 

Finally, we want to talk about situations that start to feel out of control. Because we cannot control the reactions of others - even when we are being perfectly assertive, the other person may react negatively - being cruel, offensive, or aggressive. In cases like this - where you feel endangered and would like to step away - you may want to try ending the conversation by saying:

  • “This isn’t working out. Let’s talk when things are calmer.”
  • "I have a right to be heard and respected. If you can't do that for me in a kind way, then I am going to leave this conversation." This is setting a boundary, allowing the other person to respond to your expressed need, and then you get to follow up with that action. It's cooperative but still strong.

After this, we can quickly walk away or hang up the phone. If the person is truly interested in equal communication, they will be more careful in the future. If this does not happen, then the person does not care about your rights and is still looking to maintain control. We can recognise this absolutely, without deflecting to their point-of-view and making excuses.
Please know that no matter how new this way of speaking feels, or if discomfort, fear, or anxiety takes over when trying something new - when moving through the world and with others with self-love and connections - there are still ways to keep yourself safe that do not require disconnection. You can try new things and have the power to stop when you need to.
You can decide your own life. 

The homework for this week is…

Write a list of 3 areas of your life that you would like to change using assertiveness. This could be to do with home life, work, friends and family, social events or wider issues - like challenging racist or sexist behaviour. Base this on what you want for your life, big or small!

Remember, this is an investment in your own journey to recovery. Give yourself the best chance to build resilience. You can do this. 

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