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Saying NO and Sharing Negative Feelings

Learning how to say no and share negative feelings are an important aspect of effective anger management. Assertiveness problems often originated in families where there were inadequate boundaries and limits. Your parents likely tended to be overly permissive, overly strict, or inconsistent. In addition, it may have been unacceptable to express your negative feelings appropriately. As a result, you are never exposed to the skills necessary to maintain appropriate boundaries, set limits, and express negative emotions. In fact, one way to understand the assertiveness problem is as a technique for maintaining internal boundaries. Internal boundaries are the helpful guidelines we impose on ourselves to provide structure to our lives – for example, being in bed by 11 p.m. in order to get enough rest for the next day. Practice saying “no” to small things at first, like “I have to get off of the phone now because it’s getting late.” Give yourself time to develop more sophisticated boundaries and assertiveness skills.

You may have already realized that a major trigger is activated when you feel compelled to say or do things that you aren’t comfortable with, or when you have to act as though you feel something that you don’t. You don’t feel able or confident about how not to do what is being asked of you, so you do it, feel terrible, and then act out the resultant feelings. For example, someone asks you to spend the weekend with their friends, and you say yes even though you really need to stay home and rest after an exhausting two weeks of being overloaded. During the visit you complain and get into an argument with the other person over a bunch of little things. Developing and honing your ability to say no so directly can put you back in control of yourself, eliminating the need to act out in these situations.

Replacing passive and aggressive communication with assertive communication requires a lifetime commitment. It’s easy to revert to old patterns at times when you are under stress, such as when you are tired, hungry, afraid, angry, guilty, ashamed, or trying to do too much. Ask yourself what was going on that prevented you from being assertive. Remember that you have a right to make mistakes: learn from them rather than dwelling on them. Review your assertive rights. Explore your fears to make sure that you are realistic, and ask yourself whether it is worth it to you to be assertive in this situation. Focus on the constructive things you said or did, so that the next time that situation comes up you’ll be more assertive. Ask yourself what assertiveness skills you could use the next time you’re in that situation. Roleplay communicating assertively in that situation in your mind or with a trusted friend. Include what you think others would say. Finally, when you anticipate a difficult situation, mentally roleplay communicating assertively, including the other person’s responses.

Some Guidelines for Improving Assertiveness

  • When expressing refusal, express a decisive “no”; explain why you are refusing, but don’t be unduly apologetic. Where applicable, offer the other person and alternative course of action.

  • Give as prompts and brief a reply as you can, without interruptions.

  • Insist on being treated with fairness and justice.

  • Request an explanation when asked to do something on reasonable.

  • Look the person you’re talking to in the eye. Check your other body language for things that might convey indirectness or lack of self-assurance (e.g., hand over mouth, shuffling feet). Watch your voice tone and inflection, making sure that it is neither a subaudible whisper nor overly loud.

  • When expressing annoyance or criticism, remember: comments on the person’s behavior, rather than attacking him or her.

  • When commenting on another’s behavior, try to use “I statements”: example: “When you keep canceling out on social arrangements at the last minute, it’s extremely inconvenient and I feel really annoyed.” Where possible, offer a suggestion for an alternative behavior. (“I think we better sit down and try to figure out how we can make plans together and cut down on this kind of inconveniencing.”)

  • Keep a log of your assertion related responses; review them, talk them over with a friend. Watch good models.

  • Tackle less anxiety evoking situations first; don’t leap into the most emotionally laden situation you can think of right away! You don’t unlearn bad habits, or learn new skills, overnight.

  • Reward yourself in some way each time you’ve pushed yourself to make an assertive response – whether or not you get the desired results from the other person.

  • Don’t beat yourself over the head when you behave non assertively or aggressively; merely try to figure out where you went astray and how to improve your handling of the situation next time.