Assertiveness hangover

Recently I realized that I am not practicing what I preach to my clients in terms of asking for what I need and holding my own boundaries. I work through these types of issues with lots of people and I noticed that I fail to do it myself as much as I need to. This week I decided to stick to my boundaries on several different fronts and now am processing what I like to call an assertiveness hangover.

An assertiveness hangover is a term I just made up for how it feels when you aren’t used to standing up for yourself on some point and then you decide to do it. It’s the bottom of the gut feeling that people are going to yell at you, hate you, or in the case of clients, never come back. I’m working on my own distress tolerance of negative emotions lately as well, so I thought it’d be good to write about the experience of this particular feeling.

My points of contention with other people often have to do with workload and time management. I am very Type A (despite being a creative person, I love organization too, I’m a Gemini so I can do both) and I get frustrated when others are late, do things last minute, or cause me to have extra work to do. For years I’ve felt resentful at work because I was convinced that there were two types of people in the world – those who are carefree and happy, and those who do all the work that the first type slacks off and leaves for them. I felt that people who don’t get things done purposefully don’t do them because they know that someone else will complete them. In a lot of settings I still believe that’s true – think group projects – but I am coming to realize that this worldview makes it look like I’m blameless when in fact I’m contributing to the dynamic.

It’s really hard for me to ask people to be on time, even though lateness is really frustrating to me. My family is all very much on time and my dad once said something that I remember because I agree with it – when you’re late you’re telling the other person that your time is more important than theirs. I used to have trouble getting places on time so I purposefully am always early. Being a therapist and being my own boss is really forcing me to deal with my feelings about this, because I make my own schedule and people need to come in their time slot or I don’t get paid. I once had a professor say that you encounter the same person over and over until you deal with whatever problem it is they pose in your life, and then you never notice it again. My problem is stating my need for people to respect my time and work, and I guess now is the time I have to work on it.

Working with clients, some of whom tell me that time management is a struggle for them, I’m realizing more that my thinking about lateness has been too black and white. People are not intentionally being late because they don’t respect me or my time, and often they beat themselves up about it. People also do not decide to put work off until the last minute because they want me to do it for them, they struggle with prioritizing and may spend hours or days thinking about doing the thing they need to do and find themselves unable to do it. However, those things being true doesn’t mean that I need to change my boundaries, to come in and save them, or to expect less from them.

The reason therapy is different from another conversation you have with someone in your life is that a therapist is trained to help push you. People do not come to therapy just for someone to tell them everything is going to be okay or validate their feelings, they can get that from friends and family. Of course a therapist can do these things too, but the real benefit of therapy is having someone that holds you accountable to your own desires for being a better version of yourself. A therapist is going to ask you to face things you don’t want to or think you aren’t capable of, and it’s through that action that growth occurs.

Therapy is also a relationship, and the relationship between the therapist and the client in many ways can manifest problems a person is having outside of therapy. It definitely manifests problems the therapist is having! So if I come into the therapy relationship with my baggage around feeling like others don’t respect my time and then I don’t set clear, firm boundaries about how clients need to respect it, here’s what happens. Absent a clear expectation, people don’t know it’s important and don’t have parameters for what they need to do. Absent these parameters, people behave in various ways that others have deemed acceptable for them which could include being 20 minutes late or cancelling with an hour’s notice and I then end up reinforcing my beliefs that people don’t respect my time. How can someone respect something they don’t even know exists?

So here is how I’m dealing with my assertiveness hangover – I’m using this as an opportunity to talk to people about boundaries. Next time I have to have an uncomfortable conversation with someone about my time or my workload, I’m going to let them in on my emotional process with it. I’m going to let them know that asking for this is hard for me, and I’m sorry I didn’t ask for it before because it may have made me resentful, and that resentfulness was unproductive and unhelpful to everyone. I’m also going to let people know that it’s only because I care about our relationship that I am bringing it up, because if I had given up on hoping for improvement there’s no way I would have made myself this uncomfortable. We’ll see how it goes.

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