A Guest Post by BB-Dlite
I am a long-time reader of IHM. I am really grateful that such a site exists – it has really helped make sense of a lot of strange things that go on in the name of Indian culture, stuff that is taboo to actually talk about openly. One thing that I have noticed is the lack of assertiveness in the concerns that come in – DILs who need permission to visit their parents, sons who cannot set budgets for spending on parents, doctor DILs who hand over all their money to their in-laws, NRIs remote-controlled from thousands of miles away and many other such horrible situations.
The obvious response is to Just Stand Up For Yourself. But having been the victim of emotional manipulation I know that this is a lot easier said than done, especially when it is seen as ‘talking back’ and ‘being disrespectful’. A huge help to me in this aspect has been the assertiveness book “When I say no, I feel guilty” by Manuel J. Smith. It is an old book (1975) but it still has very relevant advice for those who fear confrontation but also don’t want to be walked all over.
I really recommend reading this book; it is 324 pages long so this is just a brief summary. There are many practice dialogues on situations like how to say no to a friend who wants to borrow money/your car, how an adult child can establish boundaries with their parents, how to prompt criticism of your work to get a raise and many more. The first few chapters especially are very helpful in identifying the many ways we can be manipulated and the underlying beliefs that make such manipulation possible. ______________________________________________________________________________
Whenever there is conflict between two animals of the same species, at least one will display a fight or flight response. Among humans it is not really acceptable to fight openly anymore – so we silently grit our teeth and make the empty vow of later revenge. This is passive aggressiveness. It is also unacceptable to drop everything and run, so another response is passive flight, where we try to avoid that person for as long as possible. A third option is counter-manipulation. These responses usually work poorly and don’t get us what we want. Fight and flight bring up feelings of anger and fear, and if we usually lose this causes frustration, eventual sadness and depression (withdrawal), all very toxic emotions that are best avoided.
The best response to a conflict is verbally communicating with one another and working out our problems in an assertive manner. It is best to state an honest, assertive “I want x” which can then lead to a workable compromise.
What is manipulation? When someone tries to control your behavior to meet their own personal wants by blatant or subtle arousal of feelings of guilt, anxiety or ignorance (e.g. “hurt” or “angry” looks, silences, ridicule). Manipulators can be family members, your doctor, your in-laws, your friends, even your bank teller. A common tactic is setting up arbitrary rules – rules and standards of right and wrong, fairness, reason and logic, or invention of external structure or assumption that it already exists. These are not legally binding rules, just rules that suit the manipulator. Why are people manipulative? Because it has worked for them in the past!
Your Assertive Rights: You have the right to judge your own behavior, thoughts, and emotions, and to take the responsibility for their initiation and consequences upon yourself. You have the right to offer no reasons or excuses for justifying your behavior. You have the right to judge if you are responsible for finding solutions to other people’s problems. You have the right to change your mind. You have the right to make mistakes – and be responsible for them. You have the right to say “I don’t know”. You have the right to be independent of the goodwill of others before coping with them. You have the right to be illogical in making decisions. You have the right to say “I don’t understand”. You have the right to say “I don’t care”. You are your own ultimate judge.
Some assertive ways to deal with manipulation are:
- [FOGGING]: assertively cope by offering no resistance to critical statements thrown at you. Just look for the truth in the criticism and agree with it.
- Agreeing with the truth: “That’s true, I was out late last night”
- Agreeing with the odds: “You could be right”
- Agreeing in principle: “You’re right. What you say makes sense, so when I feel the need, I’ll get in early enough.”
Other examples: “You could be right. There are a lot of things I could improve”, “You’re right, I could budget my money better”, “That’s probably true”, “You’re probably right”, “That’s true”, “You may be right”, “My taste is clothes isn’t my strong point”, “I can understand why you think that”, “I’m not surprised you feel that way”
- [NEGATIVE ASSERTION]: when dealing with valid criticism or actual mistakes, assertively accept those things that are negative about yourself. Otherwise, if non-assertive, you may (through feelings of guilt and anxiety): seek forgiveness for the error and try to make up for it or deny the error through defensiveness or counter-criticism. In both cases you cope poorly and feel worse.
E.g. Criticism → “You’re right. I wasn’t too smart in the way I handled that, was I?”
A bad haircut: “Yeah, this was a dumb thing for me to try. I don’t like it this way myself”.
An ugly outfit: “I was worried about that. These new styles just don’t suit me at all, do they?”
An error: “You’re right. That was a dumb thing for me to do again and cause you all that work”.
- [NEGATIVE INQUIRY]: break manipulative cycle by actively prompting further criticism about yourself or by prompting more information about statements of “wrongdoing” in an unemotional, low-key manner. This is best for people you want to remain on good terms with or who you are going to keep interacting with.
“I don’t understand. What is it about “wrongdoing” that is bad/wrong?” or “What is it about my doing x that is wrong/bad?”
Keep repeating this question until critical issue of the conflict in behavior comes to light. This questioning can extinguish repetitive manipulative criticism from these people so it doesn’t drive you up the wall. This can then lead to a real negotiation of likes and dislikes and a workable compromise. Don’t use sarcasm, which is just thinly veiled verbal aggression.
E.g. “This dish doesn’t taste good.” → “What is it about the dish that tastes bad? Not enough salt? Too spicy?” → “Too much salt” → “Anything else besides the salt?” → “No, that’s it.”
Some more: “Is there anything else about me that doesn’t come off right?” “Is there anything else?” “Will you tell me some more about it?” “What am I doing wrong?”
- [BROKEN RECORD]: be persistent and using a calm, repetitive voice say what you want over and over again without getting angry, irritated or loud. E.g. “I won’t be coming over this weekend” or “I want my money refunded.” Another option is “I’m sure that ‘other person’s argument’ [FOGGING] but I cannot do that [BROKEN RECORD]” or “I understand/I see your point/ but I’m not interested”. This will not win you any popularity contests, but just repeat as many times as necessary.
- [WORKABLE COMPROMISE]: when you feel your self-respect is not in question, offer to wait, flip a coin, offer up another alternative etc. If the end goal involves a matter of self-worth there can be no compromise.
- [SELF-DISCLOSURE]: assertively disclosing information about yourself- how you think, feel and react to another person’s comments. This one doesn’t seem like an assertive skill but being open about your thoughts is actually very assertive behavior – I don’t know, I don’t understand, I don’t care, I changed my mind, I made a mistake, likes, dislikes etc.
E.g. Invitation: “No, I just don’t feel like it this weekend. Let’s try it another time?”
E.g. “What will happen if everyone did ‘something speaker doesn’t like’?” → “I don’t know, what will happen?”
When you are being manipulated you will most likely need to use a combination of the above tools. For example:
Friend: “You’re not going to take that Japanese class, are you?”
You: “I haven’t decided yet.” [SELF-DISCLOSURE]
Friend: “You shouldn’t – it’s just a waste of time.”
You: “Yeah, it could be.” [FOGGING]
Friend: “Well, are you going to take it?”
You: “Maybe, I haven’t decided yet.” [BROKEN RECORD]
Friend: “You should take something practical.”
You: “You’re probably right.”[FOGGING]
Friend: “Well, I hope you make a sensible decision.”
You: “So do I. “[SELF-DISCLOSURE]
Lastly, a non-verbal assertive behavior is making eye contact. Avoiding eye contact is a learned behavior in response to past conflicts where we have not coped well. If we don’t look at the other person, we don’t get so nervous or anxious. But it is difficult to be taken seriously if you cannot even look the other person in the eye. It is hard to tell when someone is looking at us in the eye (unless eye is moving) within a 9-inch radius around the nose (test this with a friend). So stare at one ear/eyebrow/bridge of nose instead!
The End Result: Being assertive helps respond to manipulative attempts to control your behavior. It also enables the learner to look at his own personal qualities, the ones he has doubts about, without feeling insecure, and to say meaningfully “So what? I do not have to be perfect to be effective and happy.” It desensitizes you to criticism so you are not defensive, anxious, nervous or guilt-ridden when someone tells us something we don’t like. It also helps us to distinguish between the truth in a criticism and arbitrary right and wrong, and trains you to feel comfortable about making and admitting to errors.
It helps in relationships where the other person may be passively coping (maybe due to your defensiveness or flight when criticized) and cannot assertively complain or state what changes are wanted. Without an outlet for resolving differences, any relationship is destined for failure.
It can prompt us to examine our own behavior for manipulation – this sort of behavior is picked up from those around us like fleas.
What if the other person doesn’t give in or is also assertive in return? If you keep your self-respect by exercising your assertive rights, you will feel good even if you do not achieve your goal.
Being assertive sends a clear and unmistakable message “Hey. I’m not manipulatable. I don’t fit into your game plan. You don’t like that? Okay. Find someone you’re more comfortable with.” ______________________________________________________________________________