08/04/2014 11:07 am ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

Assertiveness and Anxiety

I grew up in Thailand where maintaining harmony, avoiding confrontation and conflicts, and looking to the needs of others are instilled in children from a very early age. Going against the flow, saying no, disagreeing, and asking for help are discouraged and viewed as selfish. When I immigrated to the United States, I realized that the values prized in Thailand did not always work in my new environment. I got into situations where I agreed to meet others' needs, wishes, and desires and expected that they would intuit my needs, wishes, and desires. When that didn't happen, I had to make serious adjustments to my belief systems and change my behavior accordingly. I had to ignore my hard-wired reactions and feelings and learn to be more assertive.

I see similar struggles in many of my clients with anxiety disorders, where assertiveness is akin to going against their nature and even taking a risk. They see being assertive equal to being unreasonable, unhelpful, confrontational, aggressive, or selfish. So many of them learn to devalue their own feelings over those of others. Although saying yes, helping a friend out, and agreeing to take on more responsibilities are perfectly fine from time to time, consistently putting others' needs and demands before your own may lead to feeling stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, resentful, and disappointed.

In fact, it doesn't occur to many people to say "no" or "I don't agree" or "I need to think it over" because this is a foreign concept, rarely expressed. Or it is often accompanied by anxiety and quickly dismissed in favor of meeting others' demands or needs. The risk associated with asserting yourself is overemphasized while your ability to handle it is dismissed. You might resort to avoiding perceived threats (flight) or to overreacting (fight), both of which are not conducive to relationships. The irrational loop puts emphasis on the feelings of anxiousness: "The more nervous and anxious I feel, the more I need to be careful." But avoidance does not help your anxiety in the long run.

As noted in previous posts, habits can be difficult to change and replace. It takes commitment, purposeful effort, and intention to do the unfamiliar. Start by looking for situations to practice new ways of communicating. I often suggest statements like "let me get back to you" or "I'm not sure how I feel about that" as an intermediate step to "no." Expect discomfort and anxiety as you embark on new patterns of behavior and communication. When these feelings accompany experiences tailored to help you to develop healthier responses, it is a good thing. With practice, you'll feel less anxious and more satisfied.

For more information or for referrals to professionals who specializes in anxiety, please visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.