Many clients come to therapy because they are struggling with issues in their relationship. None of us are taught how to be in an intimate partnership with another person; our main and sometimes only example is our parents’ relationships, and whatever they chose to model for us becomes imprinted on our minds and hearts, serving as the blueprint for our future relationships.
Unfortunately, for so many of us, communication in general – and being assertive more specifically – is a challenge. We have a hard time speaking up for ourselves, especially when it comes to asking for what we need. Why is this so? And what is the response to this issue from a perspective of Buddhist psychology?
According to Buddhism, the ego becomes ensnared in a dichotomous struggle between grasping, or attachment and resisting, or aversion. There are many examples of ways in which this happens, but four primary “poisons” that Buddhism discusses are: pleasure/pain, gain/loss, approval/blame and fame/disrepute. Through this lens, being assertive in our relationships is fertile ground for the ego, touching on the dichotomy of approval/blame as well as pleasure/pain and gain/loss. If I’m assertive and I ask for what I need, I’m attached to getting your approval, in addition to whatever (potentially) pleasurable outcome I’m hoping to gain. If you can’t give me what I need, I risk experiencing pain and loss, and not feeling as though I’ve received your approval.
But what is the deeper issue at play? How do we free ourselves from the cycle of suffering (known as “samsara” in Buddhism), from the pull of ego in terms of attachment to things that feel good and aversion to anything that feels bad?
The answer lies in understanding who we REALLY ARE. According to Buddhism, we are not our bodies or our minds. We are not our ever-changing physical form or the thoughts and feelings that arise in that form. Rather, we are the Observer, the space within ourselves that is quiet and still, always at peace, and able to watch our thoughts and our feelings. Some traditions refer to this as spirit or soul, to others it is essence, energy, divine light or simply, Love.
When we over-identify with ego, and we take ourselves to be our bodies and our minds, we suffer. We are not able to be assertive with those closest to us because we risk losing the most, hurting the most. We are stuck in a place of disempowerment, a space that constantly looks to the external world to fill our holes and voids. We try to have our needs met through things that exist outside of our SELVES – through food and drink, drugs and substances, image or money or our partners.
When we know who we REALLY are – when we meditate or do yoga and return to our centers, to the Light within each and every one of us – we can ask for what we need. We can easily stand up for ourselves, protect ourselves and meet our needs because we know that it is OUR responsibility to do so. I am the only one responsible for my happiness so I must learn how to take care of myself. The Buddha said, “You, more than anyone else, deserve your love and affection.”
So be kind and loving toward your SELF. Ask for what you need, whatever that may be – and know that you deserve to have your needs met.