You know those people who apologise for everything, and you point it out to them, and then they apologise for apologising? Yep, that's me. I've been a pushover my whole life, but the older I get, the sicker of it I get. I finally decided to do something about it. Illustration by Fruzsina Kuhári.
I'm not sure where it started, but I know where it climaxed. My fiance and I had just closed on our home. I spent years saving for the down payment, he saved a bit, too, and we were excited to get the ball rolling together. During the process, though, I noticed something: It was all about him. When I sent the escrow payment, the company thanked him. The mortgage firm only called him. He got all the phone calls. It was like I had nothing to do with the whole thing. We joked it off, but then came the tipping point. I submitted our final loan documents, they were approved and we were officially homeowners. I sent a thank you email, to which the mortgage firm replied:
"You bet. Congratulations, Brian!"
It was so stupid, it was laughable. But I didn't laugh. I got angry. It seemed silly, but I wanted to feel responsible for the goal I'd worked toward. Instead, I felt powerless and invisible. I spewed a string of expletives, and my friend, sitting next to me, said she'd never seen me angry before. I apologised. I felt guilty for not being grateful. I was buying a house, after all, and I should just be happy about that.
"You shouldn't apologise," she said. "You can be grateful and still want to have your moment."
Now, I know I'm a soft-spoken person. I'm quiet. And I can be a pushover. So I can see how it happened. And it wasn't just that incident that pushed me over the edge. It was years of friends undermining me, employers piling more work on me and colleagues not returning favours. I felt powerless. I realised I could keep complaining about it, or I could figure out why it was happening. So I sat down, thought about it, then came up with some rules to follow in order to stop being a pushover and also empower myself. I wasn't going to change my personality, but I would change some bad social habits that were holding me back.
Like a lot of people, I hate confrontation. Some of us hate it so much we avoid anything that remotely resembles it. Car salesman can't do any better? That's fine, I'll take it. Restaurant got my order wrong? I'll deal with it.
I bet the whole house situation would have been ironed out from the beginning if not for my pesky fear of confrontation. No one had any idea how annoyed I was at being left out of the process, and how would they? I never said anything, because I didn't want to ruffle feathers.
Here's the thing, though. It's entirely possible to get your point across without being confrontational — It's called being direct. Being direct is simply communicating what you think or feel about something. It's objective and reasonable. Confrontation, on the other hand, is a frustrated and aggressive reaction.
When I thought about it, I realised just how many instances of my being a pushover could've been fixed with a little directness. So "be direct" became Rule #1.
I'm not the only one with this unfounded fear of being too aggressive. A study from Columbia University (PDF) looked at assertiveness and self-awareness. Subjects conducted a mock negotiation and then rated their assertiveness. The researchers found that people with normal levels of assertiveness overestimated themselves quite a bit:
Many people seen as appropriately assertive by counterparts mistakenly thought they were seen as having been over-assertive, a novel effect we call the line crossing illusion... In Study 3, for instance, of those seen as under-assertive, 57% thought their counterparts viewed them as appropriately assertive or over-assertive.
In other words, no one thinks I'm actually being confrontational when I express myself. That was reassuring, and it helped me stick to the rule. I finally called out the mortgage company. I was direct but polite and simply told them it's nice to be included. They apologised, of course, and even though the whole process was already over, I felt a little more powerful by speaking up.
Don't Be Afraid to Say No
Months ago, a friend asked me to help out with a project. At first, it seemed easy enough, but as the project continued, it got harder. The more serious she got about the project, the more emails she sent and the more work I had to do. Between that and a bunch of other obligations, I felt I had no control over my free time.
When I started thinking about how stressed and powerless I felt, I realised how much of it could be remedied if I just said no to things that taxed my time and productivity.
"I hate to do this," I told my friend. "But I'm stretching myself thin and I don't think I can devote the time you need to this." Easy. And, because she's a reasonable person, she understood and thanked me for the time I did devote.
Around that same time, a client asked if it was possible to tighten an already tight deadline to get something out early. It would mean working 12 hour days, and I could already see myself burning out and compromising the quality of my work. My immediate reaction, a behaviour that's long been my default, was to absolutely comply without question. I remembered my rule, though, and explained to the client that, unfortunately, I didn't think I could swing it, but I would submit as early as I could. I was terrified. I didn't want to lose the job. However, I knew what would happen if I accepted: I'd overwork myself, curse the client and resent the work in a powerless fit of fury. If I said no, I'd have the time I needed to get the job done and get it done right. Even better, I'd feel in control of my time and output. To me, that was worth the risk, and thankfully they agreed.
Of course, it's not always this easy. We all have necessary obligations we can't reject. However, I think we often convince ourselves that certain tasks are obligatory when they don't have to be. This was probably the easiest rule to follow because the payoff is instant. You say no, and you immediately feel your load lighten.
Embrace Your Accomplishments
Whenever someone compliments me, I either compliment them instead or I insult myself. Either way, I reject it. People reject compliments for different reasons. Maybe they feel embarrassed and don't like the attention. Maybe they have low self-esteem. Maybe they're afraid of being pompous.
Whatever the reason, embracing your strengths can do a lot for your confidence. When you believe you have control over your accomplishments and actions, you feel powerful. This is why a weekly list of your accomplishments can be highly motivating. Here's how A Life of Productivity explains it:
I started doing something simple: maintaining a list of all of my weekly accomplishments. I don't put everything I do on this list, but over the week, I add my larger accomplishments to it...The list lets me think in terms of how much I accomplish, and not simply how much I do. This pushes me to do less busywork, and focus more on my important tasks that actually lead me to accomplish something.
It's not about patting yourself on the back. It's about reminding yourself that you have control over your outcome; that your hard work really does pay off. What's more, learning to take compliments and embrace accomplishments can also tell you a lot about your strengths. We often take our strengths for granted because they come easy to us, but when we actually accept compliments and embrace accomplishments, we can pinpoint those strengths and use them more to our advantage.
I made it a rule to start accepting my own strengths. Keeping a weekly list of accomplishments is one way to go about it. When it comes to compliments, pinpoint your default response and then get in the habit of replacing it with a more empowering reply. A simple "thank you" will do. It sounds easy when you put it like that, but when you're not used to it, you have to shift your whole mentality.
Don't Catch Other People's Stress
Around the time I started this experiment, I had a phone meeting with a potential client. They wanted me to write blog posts for them, which is nothing new for me, so I told them my availability. I could have something in about a week, considering my current schedule. "We really need something by Monday morning," they said. "We're on a tight deadline, sorry." Considering it was the end of the week, that meant I'd have to work over the weekend. What's more, they asked if I could cut my rate for a shorter article.
I should have said no, but I agreed and spent an otherwise relaxing Saturday working for a client. I didn't do it because I needed the money or I really enjoyed the work. Ridiculously, I did it because their stress was convincing. During the phone call, I felt stressed, too, like this had to get done, it had to get done fast, and they couldn't find another writer. I felt like their only hope.
It's nice to offer help, don't get me wrong. However, I had a bad habit of catching other people's stress. It wasn't even a friend or a family member who needed help, though. It was a business looking to delegate their time-sensitive issue, and for some reason I stepped up to the plate. I could have helped by referring them to another writer or respecting their time and ending the phone call. I wasn't helping, though. I was just taking on their problem for myself. In turn, it made me stressed and bitter and resentful. And it was my own fault — I agreed to it!
This sort of goes hand in hand with learning to say no, but stress can be infectious, whether the person is asking for your help or not. Beyond this instance, I realised how much I let other people's stress get to me. If you're the type of person who likes to fix problems, you can probably relate. We can't expect people to not bring their stress to us, but we don't have to accept it. Of course, it's one thing when it's a job you've already signed up for, and you're prepared for the stress that comes along with it. There's a big difference between your boss asking you to do your job and someone else just passing their problems onto you. When you take on other people's stress, you have less time to manage your own issues, and that's when you start to feel out of control. At least I do.
In the end, empowerment and confidence comes from within — and all that other fluff — but let's be honest. Other people's actions and reactions can impact us. Whether we agree to obligations we can't handle, try to fix everyone's problem or just don't speak up, these are bad habits that can take a toll on you. For me, it helped to pinpoint these habits and come up with a few rules to change them. I focused on one at a time, and eventually, I started to feel a little more in control of my own situation.