Angela prided herself on her ability to endure hassle. She had a fifteen-year-old son, who ran rings around her at home. She experienced him as dominating. She was a single parent, and because there was only one of her, she found it harder and harder to push back. Physically, her son was stronger than her. In her work life, Angela felt taken advantage of. She would take on all the work her boss gave her, until she felt overloaded. But, because she needed the job, she found it hard to stand up for her own needs. She tended to accept extra work, fearing that if she didn’t, she might lose her job altogether.
Angela is simply a composite example of what we all face in life. Your examples will be different from Angela’s, but you, too, will have plenty of situations where you accept the pushing of others, and fear pushing back.
DECIDING WHERE THE ACCEPTABLE LIMITS ARE
You may look at Angela’s life, and say ‘well, yes… Angela is simply making decisions in order to keep the peace. If she starts fighting back, then her son, or her boss, will simply use their power to fight back even harder.’
I kind of agree with you. We all make behavioural decisions based on likely outcomes, and if the power balance is not even, then it can be reasonable to moderate our responses to take that into account.
But, equally, we need to bring in a sense of where the acceptable limits are. Otherwise we will drift into accepting behaviour from others that is inconsistent with our own values.
WHAT HELPS YOU AND WHAT HURTS YOU?
In order to work out where to draw the line, it helps to make some inner calculations, in terms of others’ behaviour, as to what helps you and what hurts you. Often, we start by judging that there is nothing to be done, and so we don’t even bother working out what improvements we would request if we could.
In the example above, Angela had a think about why she felt so awful in relation to her son, and in relation to her job. As regards her son, she felt that she had no freedom in her own house. She was always tidying up after him, and could not switch off from that. And as regards her job, she felt defenceless when asked to do extra work. This, she felt, damaged her self-esteem, as she felt disrespected and worthless.
Solutions aren’t always obvious. In Angela’s case, she felt at the poor end of power relations as regards her son and the job. But she did find that an open and consistent request to her son to tidy up after himself paid dividends. To her surprise, he started to cooperate. She also found that she could enlist the help of an assistant manager at work to have a word with her boss. Things did not become perfect overnight, but she had found a channel of communication through which to alert her boss when she felt overwhelmed.
When we are afraid of things, we only think of dramatic solutions – fight or flight. But when we engage with things, solutions begin to arise that we would not have thought of at first.
A 3-STEP PROCESS
When you feel powerless, to release yourself from fear and inaction, it is worth considering the following three steps:
- ASSESS – Assess honestly what is hurting you about the current situation. Be specific – almost mechanical – about cause and effect. Who is doing what, and how is it impacting on you?
- REHEARSE – Practice expressing this to yourself and friends first. See if you can find the words to describe the impact of the situation on your effectiveness. This may help you to gather the language you will need to argue your case.
- ENGAGE – A third step is to actually engage with the person whose actions are affecting your life. Describe what is happening for you, and see if a mutual solution begins to emerge.
It won’t be simple. But at least you will have made the movement towards expressing, to someone with power and influence over you, what would help. Yes, it’s their choice whether to act… but you may be surprised what comes out of conscious engagement.