Bill’s wife made it clear that he would have to change his longstanding plans to play tennis with his brother. Why? She had been invited to a brunch party at the last minute and it was “very important to her” and she’d meet some “key players in her field” who could help her career. He needed to stay with the kids. Bill agreed. He called his brother an hour before they were to meet. His brother asked him, “Why didn’t you call a sitter? Tell her no? Or split the time? We’ve had this date on the calendar for three weeks!”
Sally could not have been more excited about her trip to Phoenix. It was part business, part pleasure. She was packing when Jan, her long-term partner, came into the room, visibly upset. “I didn’t say anything till now because I knew how much this trip meant to you, but I can’t bear it if you leave. I’m having so much stress at work and you are the only thing that keeps me sane. I started thinking about being alone here for four days and I started to hyperventilate. I wouldn’t come to you if it weren’t really important. Can you cancel? I really need you right now.” Sally felt her heart sink, but she told me later, “She was a wreck. How could I leave her? What would she have thought about my love if I couldn’t even do this for her when she needed me?”
Why do people say “yes”—passively, uncritically, at a cost to themselves? Fear of losing love and similar attachment-related fears are the false motives that keep us in uneven relationships in which boundaries are unclear and self-awareness is lacking.
Being passive is a learned behavior that can be unlearned through self-awareness, dedication, and support. Many people start learning the “rules” when they are very young children—how to avoid conflict, put others’ needs before their own, become people pleasers. Often, these children live with the constant threat, which may not even be spoken aloud, of rejection, loss, or abandonment.
Even when there is no implicit risk, our culture is one in which the passive child is often praised, specifically for getting along and going along. The rewarded child is the one who makes no fuss, does not fight with siblings, friends, or classmates, acquiesces to others’ wants and whims, and is easy to please.
None of us wants to be that person. But many of us have, at one time or another, been passive in a relationship. Interestingly, there are people who are assertive and strong in business, but passive in love, or bullies in love, but unable to stand up to the boss. Whatever form it takes, passive behavior is usually the result of a complex history, but it bodes ill for the future.
What are the results of passivity?
√ Destructive, unfulfilling, dead-end relationships that recur with different partners
√ Inability to choose a compatible partner
√ Unmet needs leading to frustration, resentment, and angry outbursts
√ Low self-esteem, including feelings of unworthiness, invisibility, depression
Why? Think of the passive partner, Sally or Bill, as uncharged batteries. They seek from others a spark that will give them life, but until they can claim their own power and make their own light, they won’t find what they are looking for. Though they seem pliable and acquiescent, they are living lives leeched of purpose and worth in an attempt to avoid conflict and risk. In extreme cases, self-image suffers to the point of the annihilation of self.
If you are through with passively accepting someone else’s agenda for your life, you can reclaim your power. You can get off the merry-go-round of a life in limbo by discovering your own assertive, core self.
Obviously this is not necessarily a quick fix, and the general guideline to start with is to be kind and understanding with yourself and at all costs avoid self-blame or recrimination. You may want to seek professional counseling or therapy, but there is much you can do for yourself as you gently open yourself to becoming more assertive within your own life. How? Through self-awareness….
Who are you? The real you has been denied in favor of making nice and not making waves. Sit with yourself, for thirty minutes a day, and get reacquainted with yourself. What are your core values? What do you need and want in your life and relationships?
Commit to not settling. Make it clear to yourself (because then it will be clear to everyone else) that you will never again accept less than what you deserve. Sit with that. How does it feel?
Face your fears. What do you fear? You created that fear and you can kick it to the curb. Explore each fear in turn and ask yourself, “Is this really true?” Will standing up for yourself really make you less lovable? Will asking for what you want scare everyone away? Don’t ever think your fears define you. They don’t.
Speak your truth. At some point along the way you tucked your voice into a folder inside you and forgot about it. Go find it.
Use “I” words. I want. I need. I am going to get the life I deserve. Start small. Speak for you.
Do boundaries. Identify them, create them, and keep them. People like Bill and Sally in the stories I started this blog with say yes “out of fear that [they] would lose love and that other people would get angry at him. These false motives and others keep us from setting boundaries.” (Henry Cloud in his book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life)
Say no more than yes. To follow up on the above, try the simple boundary of no—“No, I won’t cancel my trip,” Sally might have said to Jan. You can offer kindness and support without giving up a piece of you. “I will be a phone call away. I love you and will see you on Sunday.”
Pursue your hopes and dreams. Yours matter just as much as anyone else’s. Don’t let them pass you by. And don’t risk resentment and bitterness when all you need to do is say, “This is important to me, so I’m going for it.”
Both Bill and Sally have found their way to more balanced relationships in which both parties’ needs are being met. Each of them worked on the same list of pointers that I’m giving you, taking it one step at a time. Don’t feel discouraged if you can’t make all the changes at once. It took you a lifetime to learn these coping strategies and it will take time to unlearn them. Be patient with yourself. I have absolute faith in you.