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Why Assertiveness Training Is an Important Weapon in Borderline Personality Disorder Recovery

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Many people who have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) have very poor communication skills. For many, their emotional development arrested at a very young age and they simply did not learn good communication. In other cases, their family of origin did not practice assertive communication skills. You can’t learn something from someone who doesn’t know it either.

Assertiveness is an important weapon in the BPD recovery toolbox because it allows the person to maintain healthy relationships with the people they most care about. Without knowing assertive communication, the person may be backed into one corner after another where they can become either aggressive or passive-aggressive in order to make themselves heard. These kinds of communication strategies can erode trust in relationships and destroy intimacy.

When a person learns how to speak assertively, many things happen. It reinforces their self-esteem because they are standing up for themselves. It gives them an opportunity to say how they feel about things and without allowing themselves to feel invalidated by the other person’s response. It is a powerful tool in helping them to learn to love themselves, because it gives them a productive way of dealing with their usually negative feelings and, consequently, their bad perception of themselves. Instead of acting out, they now have a way to talk about what is bothering them, meaning more people can be open to listening to them instead of either tuning them out or just dismissing and/or pushing them away.

Assertiveness skills also teach people that it is OK to feel their feelings. Many people with BPD assume that because they have “bad” thoughts, they are “bad” people. They have not learned that feelings are just something you experience based on external stimuli. They have not learned to be able to refrain from making a judgment about their feelings — to just observe them without putting a value on them. Assertiveness gives them an opportunity to do just that.
In many cases, when a person is first exposed to the concept of assertiveness, they erroneously assume that it means they will always get whatever it is they are asking for. However, an important distinction between assertiveness and aggressiveness is that the former does not have the component of making a demand. An assertive statement is simply putting your needs and/or wants into a statement which does not stomp all over the other person’s right to be their own person. The other person has the right to refuse to meet the request.

Assertive requests are simple “I” statements such as: “I would appreciate if you would please stop telling me I am fat. When you tell me I am fat, I feel invalidated by you.” The other person may try to tell you that you are “wrong” to feel invalidated but your feelings are your own; another person cannot tell you that you are wrong to or should not feel that way. It is this fact that helps the person practicing assertiveness develop their self-esteem and engage in self-love.

Many people who have BPD have grown up in environments where they are often either told they are worthless, told their feelings are wrong or they are not heard at all. In many cases, they learn that the only way to be heard is to lash out. Practicing assertiveness gives them an opportunity to voice themselves in a whole new way. Of course, there is no guarantee that the other person or persons will either hear or acknowledge what they have said, but they are able to say it, often for the first time in their lives.

Learning to practice assertiveness is easy; putting it into practice takes practice.

The best way to learn assertiveness skills is to take a class. There are many online resources for it as well.

There are several different ways to practice assertiveness. One effective way is to follow a script. One of the advantages to doing it this way is that it allows you time to prepare what you want to say in advance and practice it with someone you trust. Doing it this way is especially helpful if you want to deliver an assertive message to someone who you think will not listen or pay attention. It will give you greater confidence.

Assertiveness is comprised of three different types of statements:

The “I think” statements deals with the facts of what is happening around you. It is important not to include any judgments about what is happening and should not be any kind of attack on the other person. It should be a clear statement about what is happening in the moment and that you would like to change. Doing this opens the door for dialogue about possible ways to change the situation. An example would be: “I think you have been late to many of our recent meetings.” This statement contains no emotion and is not open for interpretation by the other person.

The second are the “I feel” statements in which you put a name to the emotion you are experiencing. An example is: “I feel anxious.” You are not placing blame on the other person — merely stating how you are feeling in the moment. It is important to not say something like “You make me feel…” In many cases, people will attempt to try to make their “I feel” statement look and act like an “I” statement by saying something like: “I feel that you are not paying attention to me.” In a case like this, it is a judgment, which is at the core of the statement rather than the feeling. Doing it this way allows the speaker the luxury of not feeling quite as vulnerable, but it does not convey the message in an assertive manner.

The last part is the “I want” statement. This is the essential nut of assertiveness. It is important to recognize that simply stating what you want does not guarantee you will receive it. All it does is allow you the opportunity to make your desires known. Some guidelines are as follows:

Remember you are allowed to ask for what you want. Always.

You are allowed to ask for changes to another person’s behavior.

Ask for only one behavioral change at a time or the other person may become overwhelmed and abandon the prospect entirely.

Ask for a change in behavior which can be changed immediately, such as: “Stop picking your nose.”

Be specific in your request. Asking someone to “be nicer to other people” is too vague. Be concrete in what you want them to change.

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Thinkstock photo via Anetlanda

Originally published: August 2, 2017
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