I felt like a fucking doormat.
My college roommate had said yet another joke that made me the butt of it. He wore a smug, self-satisfied smirk knowing he had pissed me off and I probably wasn’t able to say anything back. Anger coursed through my veins and my body tensed up. I wanted to say something. No, I wanted to punch him in the fucking face. But, I did nothing. No matter how many times this happened before, I always swore to myself that next time would be different. Yet, it never was.
I was in a vulnerable emotional state during college. I had extreme social anxiety and a poor self-image. As detailed in part 2 of the panic attack series, my roommate picked up on this. He would say a lot of jokes that would put me down and try to win these logical arguments to make me feel dumb. Since I didn’t have a lot of friends in college and didn’t want to live by myself, I let fear control me and ended up living with this roommate for 4 years.
Living for 4 years in this situation was stressful and anxiety-inducing. I was in a constant sense of tension and anger. But, I had no outlet for that energy because I was unable to assert myself. It was hard to sleep at night because I was always on edge around my roommate. I beat myself up over why I wasn’t able to stand up for myself. Instead of really enjoying my college years, part of me wished it was over so I could finally live my life.
Fear. Shame. Helplessness. Anger. Anxiety.
Those were the walls to the prison I wasn’t sure how to get out of.
This fear cascaded into my romantic relationships as well. I repelled a lot of women because my self-esteem was in the dumps and I wanted them to validate me. They knew I didn’t have self-respect for myself. Eventually I got a hot girlfriend, but she dragged me through her emotional storms.
I’d endure her starting arguments when she thought I was cheating on her.
I’d endure her texting her ex-boyfriend and then deleting the messages.
I’d endure her taking guys numbers.
I’d endure her silent treatment because she thought I did something wrong.
I’d endure her being “hot and cold” about me.
I’d endure her Snapchatting this guy constantly and then saying it was just an “older guy that keeps snapping her”.
I became a whipping boy trapped in a cycle of learned helplessness. I had no self-respect for myself and thought my worth was in “sticking it out and saving her”.
Eventually, I reached my breaking point. I had struggled with being assertive in the past because I just couldn’t bring myself to do it in the moment. But, I had grown so sick of feeling like I was at the mercy of other individuals. The pain of my current reality became greater than the potential consequences I would have to deal with by being assertive.
I refused to live life on my knees.
I broke up with the girlfriend and embarked on a journey of self-improvement. When I started dating other women, I did not tolerate any bad behavior and walked away even when I did not have many options. The principle mattered more than the result. I learned how to voice to people what they said / did made me uncomfortable. As I grew personally, it became easier to assert myself and stick up for what I believed in.
The feeling of helplessness was replaced with a sense of empowerment.
I had done it.
I know the pain of being a doormat, and that’s why I’m here to show you how to be more assertive. Before we do that, let’s dive into why it’s so hard to be assertive.
How to be assertive: Reasons you’re not assertive
Reason 1: Low self-esteem
Here’s why it’s so hard to open your mouth and say you’re uncomfortable with what someone is saying: You don’t think you’re good enough to voice your feelings, and you don’t feel like you handle what life throws your way.
Assertiveness requires vulnerability – the willingness to express yourself. Vulnerability requires self-esteem – the belief & feeling you matter as an individual. If you felt the person making you feel uncomfortable wasn’t on your level, you would have no problems telling them to stop. But, somehow you perceive the other person to be “better or higher than you” in some way. When we have low self-esteem, we come from a mindset that our voice / needs / desires / values don’t matter compared to the other person. We become fearful and reactive to what happens to us in life, and don’t respect ourselves. When we don’t respect ourselves, we give others the green light to disrespect us.
Reason 2: We’re not taught how to be assertive
I’m willing to bet a lot of you did not grow up with a strong father figure or big brother figure to show you how to stand up for yourself.
I definitely didn’t.
I love my dad, but he was the typical absentee father figure. He worked his ass off to provide for the family, but spent more time working instead of being a father. I get it. It’s really damn hard to spend time conscientiously raising 2 sons when you’re slaving away to put food on the table.
It wasn’t the lack of time my dad spent with us that caused me to not be assertive though. It was modeling his behavior. He was a classic avoidant, not willing to face the problems he had with my mom head-on. He would let her rant & rage against him so she would spew out her emotions on him and then leave him alone. Other times, he would do the bare minimum to please / caretake her emotions so she wouldn’t keep nagging him. When I looked back on my childhood, sometimes I was jealous of the kids who grew up in an emotionally healthy household with a strong father figure. They learned what it was like to be a “man” by modeling their father’s behavior. I will admit I was resentful for some time my dad was not a strong father figure for me growing up. I had to learn how to be assertive by seeking out mentors, role models, and learning it all myself.
Although modeling is one way that causes up to not be assertive, there are so many other reasons such as:
- Being told to ignore the bully because they just want attention.
- Being discouraged from speaking our mind because it’ll raise attention.
- Embarrassing experiences where we did what we want and that was shamed.
- Traumatic experiences.
- Not being taught by our parents how to assert ourselves.
Whatever the reason is, we lose our sense of safety and self-empowerment. The message “who you are and what you express doesn’t matter” starts to get drilled in us (which is the furthest thing from the truth). Repetition of “not good enough” through the years forms a mindset and habit where you no longer feel like you have the right to express yourself and your personal boundaries. Once this gets ingrained, you have to fight against years of negative inertia to start to learn how to become assertive.
Reason 3: We become scared and gripped by fear
Fear stop assertiveness, and fear is usually tied to your feeling of not being good enough. When we don’t feel like we’re good enough, we start to cling onto the things we do have. We believe “this is as good as it gets”, and don’t believe we can ever find love / friends / this job ever again. Fear starts to be the primary motivator for what we do instead of choice.
For the girlfriend I mentioned before, I clung to her out of fear. I didn’t have much options in dating, so I wondered when the next “hot girlfriend” would come along. I was terrified of being alone, and I didn’t think I could find someone as attractive as her that would also treat me well. I thought what I was going through was all part of “making it work”. I was in pain and dying a slow death, not realizing it was I who was stabbing myself with the knife and twisting it deeper.
I was also scared of being assertive around friends who joked too hard because I thought they would laugh at me and not want to be my friend.
I was scared of being assertive at work because I thought I would look like an idiot in front of people and get fired.
I ended up going with the devil I knew instead of daring to venture out to the promised land.
Fear of loss. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of being ostracized. These were all of the fears that bound me into a feeling of helplessness.
So, how did I get out of this mess? Go to part 2 to learn how I transformed myself from a whipping boy into a man who could stand up for himself.