For far too many people, self-assertiveness is a frightening concept. Yet self-assertion is a logical extension of self-esteem, because it requires a commitment to your right to exist, which proceeds from the knowledge that your life does not belong to others.
To many people, this is a terrifying responsibility. It means their life is in their own hands. They cannot hide behind the relative security of Mother, Father or any other authority figure. It means they are responsible for their own existence – and for generating their own sense of security.
If a person will not assert their right to exist, how can they experience a sense of personal dignity? How can they experience a decent level of self-esteem?
Your life does not belong to others. You are not on earth to live up to someone else’s expectations.
To practice self-assertiveness consistently requires they conviction that your ideas and desires are important. Unfortunately, this conviction is often lacking. When we were young, many of us received signals conveying that what we thought, felt and wanted was not important. We were taught, in effect, that what we wanted was not important. All that mattered was what others wanted. We might even have been intimidated by accusations of “selfishness” when we tried to stand up for ourselves.
It often takes courage to honor what we want and to fight for it. For many people, self-surrender and self-sacrifice are far easier. They do not require the integrity and responsibility that intelligent selfishness requires.
A 48-year-old man who has worked hard for many years to support his wife and three children dreams of quitting his demanding and stressful job when he turns fifty and taking a job that will earn less money but that will afford him some of the leisure he has never permitted himself. He has always wanted more time to read, to travel and to think, without the pressure of feeling he was neglecting some urgent matter at work.
When he announces his intention at a family dinner, everyone becomes agitated and has only a single concern: How will each one’s standard of living be affected if he takes a job that pays less money? No one shows interest in his context, needs or feelings. “How can I stand against my family?” he asks himself. “Isn’t a man’s first duty to be a good provider?” He wants his family to think he is a good man, and if the price is to relinquish his own yearnings, he is willing to pay it.
He tells himself, “At least I’m not selfish. Selfishness is evil—isn’t it?”
The sad irony is that when people cease to honor or even attend to their deepest needs and wants, they sometimes become selfish not in the noble but in the petty sense, grasping at trivia after they have surrendered their deeper yearnings, rarely even knowing what they have betrayed and given up.
Healthy self-esteem asks that we leap into the arena—that we be willing to get our hands dirty.
When we learn how to be in an intimate relationship without abandoning our sense of self, when we learn how to be kind without being self-sacrificing, when we learn how to cooperate with others without betraying our standards and convictions, we are practicing self-assertiveness.