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updated: 9/5/2013 12:58 PM

Finding a balance between being submissive and aggressive

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Editor's note: This is the third installment in a three-part series.

For the last two weeks, we've been talking about how we exercise power over our own lives. Some of us, we noted, are submissive, denying we have power or giving it away to others. And some of us are aggressive, insisting we are in charge, trying to control almost everything that goes on around us. This week we're going to talk about a more constructive alternative. Let's call it being "assertive."

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Being assertive means claiming and exercising no more -- and no less -- power than is rightfully ours in any given situation. Now, that's not only difficult to say, it is also difficult to do. It involves figuring out what we are really responsible for, what we ought to do, and then doing it. Let's look at a few examples and see if that helps.

As parents we certainly are responsible for our children, but within limits -- limits that change as our children get older. For instance, we need to exercise our power to help our 4-year-old choose friends (to not do so would be submissive).

However, it would be inappropriate for us to exercise the same amount of power in the life of our 14-year-old (if we did, that would be aggressive). That does not mean we won't be anxious at times about her choice of friends, nor does it mean we won't express our opinions. It does mean that she ultimately has the power to make such decisions for herself.

As spouses we certainly have an investment in the health of our husbands and wives. If they are out of shape, overweight, smoke, etc., ... we do have a right to assertively express our concern. But that does not mean we are responsible for their health, nor ought we try to aggressively coax, nag or force them to take care of themselves.

If we are a supervisor, we do have legitimate power over the work of those we supervise. We don't want to submissively let them do whatever they want. Yet we can "oversupervise," try to dictate every action of our subordinates and make everyone less productive in the process.

As citizens in a democratic society, we have the right to expect certain things from our elected officials and express our opinions frequently and forcefully. But we draw the line at the use of violence as a means of political persuasion.

Submissive, assertive, aggressive: If the above examples give the impression that it is difficult to sort out which is which, that things change from situation to situation, and that just being assertive is often hard to do, then you understand perfectly! That's one reason so many of us wind up being either submissive or aggressive. It is much easier to simply give away or seize power than it is to "claim and exercise no more and no less power than is rightfully ours."

Each situation in which we have power requires that we decide what it means to be assertive. Of course, we can help ourselves if we try to be consistent in similar situations; if we put ourselves in other peoples' places and try to see things from their perspective; if we think about what is best in the long run for everybody involved; if we consider what is really possible, and if we recognize that we all have potentials and limitations.

Given all that, though, we can never be sure we are being appropriately assertive. It is something we'll work at our entire lives. And we need to gather around us the sort of people who are also committed to being assertive and who will give us open and honest feedback about our efforts. Then, we just have to be assertive enough to ask them for it.

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