Going to therapy is a lot like getting a teeth cleaning: it’s really not that big of a deal, and you should probably make an appointment every six months whether you think you need it or not. Combine that with regular, daily maintenance and you can mostly avoid major breakdowns or root canals. I have never missed a teeth cleaning, I show up every six months, no matter what, and haven’t had a cavity in over 20 years. I cannot say the same for regularly taking charge of my mental and emotional health, however. It can feel very uncomfortable to allow a trained, medical professional to root around in your subconscious and memory, asking difficult questions, poking a little here, scraping away a little there. The truth is, we all could probably benefit from a little cleaning and polishing, and a regular maintenance plan to keep the icky build-up at bay. By doing the little things every day we catch any issues while they are still small instead of waiting for something to fester, rot, or decay before addressing the problem. And no, I’m no longer talking about teeth.
Okay, so we agree that regular check-ups are important. Where do you begin? How do you start the process of better communication and learning how to be assertive instead of a doormat? Better question, how do you come to truly understand how being assertive is a positive and healthy thing, despite a culture that often tells you otherwise?
In her new book, The Assertiveness Guide for Women: How to Communicate Your Needs, Set Healthy Boundaries & Transform Your Relationships, Julie de Azevedo Hanks spells out some basics of emotional self-care and improvement without getting all textbooky or preachy about it. Hanks talks specifically about how and why we behave certain ways in our primary relationships, and she goes chapter-by-chapter through identifying, correcting, and maximizing Self-Reflection, Self-Awareness, Self-Soothing, Self-Expression, and Self-Expansion in order to become assertive and confident in our behaviors and thinking. Her book covers a lot of ground, but with numerous case studies and personal examples it doesn’t feel overwhelming. She has some easy-to-remember metaphors and illustrations for the reader to start practicing better communication and more mindful practices, whether that is with friends, or family, our children, or parents, or a significant other.
After a tumultuous childhood and a truly horrific (and thankfully brief) marriage and divorce, I spent most of my early twenties with weekly visits to Dr. Nancy, my kind and firm therapist. I had weekly homework and reading assignments and we spent hours and hours trying to piece my life back together. I wanted desperately to feel whole again, and I went into therapy with arms and heart wide open, ready to accept all of it if the trade-off was feeling like myself again. I learned about being clear and direct in my communication style; I learned about listening and responding with empathy and compassion; I learned how “I feel” statements instead of “you are” statements; I learned about how to realign my thinking to better reflect who I am: a daughter of God and a force to be reckoned with. Honestly, I think our “blank slate” personalities know as much, it’s through ten million tiny (or not so tiny) negative interactions throughout our lives that we start to doubt, and fear, and self-censor, and quiet the inner voices that tell us we’re awesome. (Have you talked to a three-year-old lately about how great they think they are? My queendom for a little bit of that unselfconscious confidence!)
Much of Hanks’ book details some of the basics self-awareness and self-care practices I learned to recognize while I was therapy. Her conversational style and anecdotes from her own family make it feel like you are curled up in cozy armchairs with a friend, fingers wrapped around mugs of (herbal) tea, listening to her tell you something she’s learned that really helped her out. Hanks details three overarching communication styles: the passive Doormat (gets walked over), the aggressive Sword (will run you through without thinking twice), and the healthily assertive Lantern (brings clarity and illumination to the situation at hand). In the last 15-ish years, my communication style has changed drastically. I was a Doormat for a long time, until I refused to be stomped on any more. And then I was ferociously Sword-like, unwilling to bend for anyone. By learning more about myself and about healthy ways to communicate, I finally figured out how to be a Lantern. (Although, I’ll be honest, when I get feisty/frustrated/defensive that trusty Sword is still right there, waiting for me.) “The Assertiveness Guide for Women” is a really great guide for anyone wanting to learn how take control of their lives in a positive way, improve their relationships, and all the while learning to be healthy and assertive, instead of persist in less-healthy habits.