For people struggling with issues around being assertive, food can become a powerful coping mechanism. Karen Koenig, in the book Nice Girls Finish Fat, states that women only open their mouths, with a few other exceptions, to eat and speak. She goes on to explain that when we don’t stand up for ourselves, we have a tendency to eat. Food is soothing and can be incredibly comforting when it seems like we have no other outlet. The problem with this is that it is only a temporary solution. As soon as we stop eating, the pain surfaces again. As soon as we feel the pain, we have the urge to eat again.
If you’re concerned you may have difficulty being assertive, consider the following list of questions:
- Are you constantly giving to others while rarely receiving anything in return?
- Do people consistently take advantage of you?
- Do you say yes when you really want to say no?
- Do you over commit to your own detriment? Do you take responsibility for other people’s problems?
- Do the people in your life expect you to solve their problems?
If you answered yes to these questions, you are at risk of being a doormat.
Eating instead of expressing our feelings becomes a dangerous cycle. The more we withdraw emotionally, the more difficult it becomes to be to assert ourselves, and we may feel helpless to make a change. The tension will build until, eventually, we blow. Then, when we do stand up for ourselves, we struggle with the balance between assertive and aggressive communication. Other times, we may slip into passive aggressive communication.
Here are some attributes of good, assertive communication:
- Approach people directly and respectfully
- Don’t minimize your own concerns
- Take responsibility for yourself, instead of apologizing for your needs
- Base your words on facts
- Use “I” statements instead of blaming
- Approach people with a calm voice and neutral body posture
Once we begin practicing assertive communication skills, we feel more empowered and the feelings of helplessness go away.
Here are some examples of different communication styles. Let’s say your boss tells you on Friday that he/she expect you to work on Saturday:
- Passive (lack of boundaries): Even though you have plans Saturday, you say “Ok. No problem.”
- Aggressive: “Are you kidding me? It’s Friday and you expect me to work tomorrow? This is ridiculous. I am sick and tired of your unreasonable demands. Maybe this isn’t the job for me.”
- Passive-Aggressive: “Ok. No problem.” Then you don’t show up.
- Assertive: “I would really love to help out, but I have plans tomorrow that I cannot change. If I have more notice, I can definitely help next time.”
If you were to choose the first three styles, how would you feel at the end of the interaction? What would typically happen as a result of those feelings? For many people who struggle with emotional eating, this would be a challenging trigger.
How do we prevent this cycle of emotional eating from continuing? We need to set boundaries and stick to them. To decide what boundaries to set, try to explore your priorities.
- What is important to you?
- What do you need to give up in order to create balance in your life?
- Where have you become overextended?
- Once you decide where to make changes, be clear and direct with other people about your limits without making apologies.
- Learn to say no when you mean no.
Because we lack confidence, even when we do try to set boundaries, we struggle to maintain them. We give in to the slightest hint of annoyance or a sob story. When we give in, what do we communicate to other people? We are teaching them not to accept our words at face value. It is just like setting limits with children. Initially, they pout and cry, but when we are consistent, they learn that manipulation tactics will not work. Too often, we are worried about what other people will think if we set boundaries. We are so concerned with being labeled as “selfish” that we don’t recognize that self-care is not selfish. Self-care is necessary for our survival.
When we set and maintain appropriate boundaries and use assertive communication, we feel respected. When we feel respected, we feel more confident and have higher self-esteem. Taking care of ourselves helps us have better relationships, less stress, and a more positive outlook in life. When we can directly address feelings and improve our situation, we will look to unhealthy coping skills like emotional eating less frequently.
© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Michelle Lewis, therapist in Salt Lake City, Utah
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