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    Assertiveness and Basic Rights

    tomQ: It got back to me in my office a while ago that my co-workers have a nickname for me – “Doormat Dan.” That hurt and embarrassed me, but I know what they mean. I take on too many projects because I can’t say no, I get bullied, not just by supervisors, but also even by people who report to me. I haven’t taken a vacation in over two years because whenever I’m told, “It’s not the right time,” I just cave. It’s the same thing with my boyfriend. I don’t think he intends to dominate me so much, but we always wind up doing whatever he wants, and whenever we disagree about any opinion, I always just shut up and listen to what he says without arguing or standing up for myself. How can I stop being such a doormat?

    A: Changing established patterns of compliance and passivity requires learning to be more assertive, and the good news is that assertiveness is a skill that can be taught and learned.

    One of the first things people are asked to do in many assertiveness training classes is to do some serious thinking about what they believe their rights are. In one study, participants in a series of assertiveness training workshops were asked to compile lists of what they regarded as their “basic human rights,” and the eleven rights they mentioned most frequently were:

    1. The right to act in ways that promote your dignity and self respect as long as others’ rights aren’t violated in the process.

    2. The right to be treated with respect.

    3. The right to say no and not feel guilty.

    4. The right to experience and express your feelings.

    5. The right to take time to slow down and think.

    6. The right to change your mind.

    7. The right to ask for what you want.

    8. The right to do less than you are humanly capable of doing.

    9. The right to ask for information.

    10. The right to make mistakes.

    11. The right to feel good about yourself.

    What do you think of this list? Are there any items that you think aren’t rights? Do you believe that any important rights were left out? When I examined the list, for instance, I found it striking that there is no mention of a right to freedom from violence or the threat of violence. What about a right to freedom from verbal abuse? Do you believe that you have a right to expect that the people in your life not treat you contemptuously? I suggest you take some time to write your own list of the rights you believe are inviolable. Remember that, for every right you claim for yourself, you are also required to respect it in others. A right you claim for yourself, but won’t honor in others, isn’t a right but a privilege.

    When you’re finished, think of the situations in which you’ve felt walked on by others. Which right or rights do you believe were violated in these situations? You’ll probably find one or two rights which you habitually don’t defend, and you’ll probably feel greater clarity about why and when you need to stand up for yourself.

    Once you have this clarity, the next step is to learn and begin practicing techniques for effectively standing up for your rights. If you do a web search for “assertiveness training” classes or workshops, you’ll probably find some valuable courses available in your area. There are also many books that teach the basic assertiveness skills.

    Your Perfect Right: A Guide to Assertive Living by Alberti and Emmons is one of the first, and still one of the best, self-help books on this subject. In this book, you’ll learn how to differentiate assertiveness from aggressiveness, how to get over anxiety in dealing with others, and how to improve decision-making skills and reduce stress. This book contains specific guidelines for determining how eye contact, body posture, gestures, facial expression, voice tone, inflection, and thinking can all be used to enhance your assertiveness. Good luck!

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. His website is tommoon.net.