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How to Stop Being a Pushover Without Being an Asshole (and Vice Versa)

  • 10 min read

Do you sometimes feel like people take advantage of your generosity?

Or that it would be hard to assert your boundaries without disrespecting others?

While growing up, many of us develop certain “personality traits” to get our needs met.

Since this usually happens at an age when we’re not ready to deal with complex nuance yet, these strategies often end up looking quite polarized.

We may learn to act like a “pushover” because it keeps us safe from conflict or gets more people to like us.

We may claim our right to be an unapologetic jerk, so that nobody ever considers messing with us again.

But as you may be well aware of… both strategies, while once beneficial, can wreak havoc in our adult relationships.

No matter which side of the spectrum you find yourself on.  This post will offer the possibility of finding balance.

To learn the art of assertiveness without the attitude. So that you can find social stability without having to be a doormat, nor a heartless soul.

Dignity and Humility

One of the most beautiful frameworks for striking this delicate balance, I learned from Authentic Relating Training (which I highly recommend for anyone seeking to improve their relational skills).

In the world of Authentic Relating, we grapple with what can seem like a dichotomy in social interactions – that of dignity and humility.

Dignity is the silent strength which arises from embracing your authentic self and giving yourself permission to express it.

Humility, is not seeing ourselves as above others.  Being graceful in our dealings, and knowing that every other person we’ll meet has perspectives we can learn from.  

In my early teens, I was a pushover in many ways.  I would let others cross my boundaries. Or if they’d ask me something, I’d say “yes” by default. Luckily, I wasn’t surrounded by people who would bully me.  But at the same time, if they wanted something from me, they’d get it.  Everybody would use my pre-paid phone to make calls.  Or grab a bite of my food. Whether I liked that or not.  Because I lacked the dignity to deny their requests.

As I grew more confident (which was a fake confidence fueled by popularity and alcohol), I started to embrace my authentic voice and desires.  I felt completely free to do whatever felt true to me.

But often, that overwhelming sense of freedom, would lead to me unknowingly crossing other people’s boundaries.   And I wasn’t aware, that like me a few years earlier, a lot of them lacked the self-empowerment to stand up to me if my behavior wasn’t something they agreed with.

During this period, I considered freedom my #1 value in life.  Which worked great for me.  But not always for everyone else.  For example, I would crash other people’s party’s on a daily basis, and act as their place was my private playground.  (Isn’t it interesting that countries who have freedom as #1 value do the same? Food for thought).

One day a good friend told me “When freedom is your only value, you create an imbalance in your personality.  You become a steamroller, rolling over everyone else’s freedom, while celebrating your right to yours.”.  We pondered what values might balance out my personality, and settled on “Love”.  If I pick love and freedom as highest values, I will be neither a pushover nor an asshole.

That personal story, for me, perfectly illustrates the necessity for both dignity and humility in relating.

When we have dignity alone, we claim our space, we won’t let anybody mess with us and we feel empowered to speak up.  But we might encroach on other’s space, push our opinions on people and always take the last piece of cake. We need humility to polish our arrogance into calm confidence.

When we have humility without dignity, we will negate our inner wisdom, follow other people’s plans, and ask if anyone else wants that last piece of cake.  Even when we know that we didn’t get seconds, but everyone else already did.  We need dignity to deeply recognize that our needs, perspectives and boundaries, matter just as much.

Posture and Collapse

Most human qualities also have a shadow form.

A way in which they show up when we are unconscious of them or suppress them. The shadow of a quality still contains the essence of it, but it comes out in distorted ways.

For dignity and humility, these shadow qualities are called “posture” and “collapse”.

“Posturing” looks like a forced version of dignity.  The guy at the gym who keeps his elbows horizontal to pretend they’re his shoulders. The “boss bitch” who needs to belittle guys to be dignified.   Or the Andrew Tate Inspired “alpha male” who has to see himself as above women to make sure he doesn’t get hurt by a girl again  

These are all caricatures to make a point.   In a more relatable example, we might just brag or be rigid in our positions.  I myself may have beenposturing when I gave these initial 3 examples. Judging those people as if I have them “figured out”, when the truth is, that all 3 examples I gave, where people around whom I feel my dignity get challenged.

“Collapsing” on the other hand can look like silencing yourself. People pleasing. Making yourself smaller to maintain the peace.  It can show up as wanting to say something, and then immediately thinking “Let’s not turn the conversation towards me right now.”  Or letting others treat us badly while we brace inside ourselves, waiting for it to pass.

In a moment, we’ll explore how to move from posture and collapse into dignity and humility.

But before we continue, I have to reveal something.

I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “Pushover” or an “Asshole”.  I only used these terms because they make more people read this post.

I actually think, that those are harmful words to use for ourselves and others. Not because they are rude.  But because they reduce us, limit us and dehumanize us.

If we see someone as an asshole, we stop ourselves from empathising with them as a real person. Instead of trying to understand them, we’ll be satisfied with the answer that “They’re just an asshole.”

If you see yourself as an asshole, this can make it really hard for you to develop humility.  Because doing so, would mean giving up your self-identity. Which psychologically, can be as scary as death.

So I invite you to throw out these terms altogether.

If you considered yourself a pushover, I hereby invite you to liberate yourself from that label.  From now on, you are just a person who has spent a lot of time in collapse.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

If you thought you were a jerk, then let it be known that from henceforth, you can be “just a human who learned how to posture”.

This is a critical distinction.  Because a pushover, is something you are.  But collapsing, is something you do.

Most people have a much harder time changing who they are, than changing what they do.

Changing who you are means you have to make a permanent change.

Changing what you do, is available to you in each moment.

And there are additional benefits to seeing this as a matter “doing”, rather than “being”.

If you decide to stop being a pushover forever… then what do you do when a situation arises in which collapse would be the best response?  You might refuse to. Because you “are not a pushover anymore”.

The more you can see these as behaviors instead of personality traits, the more possibilities remain at your disposal.

Finding Balance Between Self-Esteem and Respect for Other

A different way to look posture and collapse, is by seeing them as extremities.

Collapse might occur when we go too far in the direction of humility.  And posture when we keep going way past dignity.

In my previous post, I mentioned how flirting with extremes can be a useful way to find balance.

By consciously swinging back and forth between the extremes of dignity and collapse, we can become familiar with the entire territory that exists between them.

And each time we swing, we can attempt to go just a little less far in each direction than we did before.

Until eventually, we discover a nice middle point, balancing in the center where we find the best of both worlds.

If you’re not a fan of extremes, and too much swinging makes you dizzy… Here’s a more gentle approach:

I like to look at shadow qualities as “immature versions” of their conscious counterparts.

For example, a shadow quality of leadership is tyranny.  Tyranny still holds the essence of leadership inside of it, but it expresses it with the emotional maturity of a 2 year old throwing a tantrum.

Now here’s the thing:

If we don’t allow a 2 year old to throw the occasional tantrum, we actually hinder the development of its ego.

In other words: To be able to mature from a child into an adult, we have to be a child first.

What if the same was true about personality traits?

If we run with that idea, we can give ourselves permission to posture for a bit in full awareness.  To be in that immature form of dignity, so that we can give it space to grow into adulthood.  Each time, developing the quality a bit more.

Paradoxically, fully embracing both posture and collapse, can hold the key to finding true dignity and humility.

Because accepting that we can’t embody both 100% of the time and there will always be situations where posture or collapse are all we have… that in itself is pure humility.

And if we recognise that we don’t have to embody dignity, nor humility in order to be enough… we may find ourselves in dignity already.

Acting Assertive Without Being Aggressive: How to Find Dignity and Humility in Conflict

As a listener, we can stay humble by truly listening to others and considering their perspectives.

And we maintain our dignity, knowing that just because we listen without arguing, doesn’t mean that we have to deny our internal truth and values.

This is often the first step to resolving conflict. If neither party is willing to understand the other’s perspective, there’s no possibility for resolution. Only for surrender.

As a speaker, we keep our dignity by sharing the truth of our experience.

And we keep our humility by doing so in a way that doesn’t the other person responsible for what we experience. And by phrasing our words with consideration. Using them to reveal ourselves and be interested in the other. Not to defend or attack.

We keep our dignity, by sharing that truth in the first place.

If we find ourselves posturing, giving ourselves permission to do so can put us back into dignity.

And revealing to the other that we are posturing, can put us back into humility.

If we find ourselves collapsing, revealing to the other that the situation is hard to deal with for us, is a doorway to both dignity and humility at the same time..

But what if the other person doesn’t show up humble and dignified?  Why should you?

You are under no obligation to show up in any way. But consider this: Leaving the ball in the other person’s court will always put you in a disempowered position.  If you desire for all parties to treat each other and themselves with respect…and you have the capacity to do so, why not consider being the first?

What if you show up with humility and dignity, but the others respond negatively?

Good question.  I don’t have the answer yet. And I’m open to learn from you.

… but hey, you could try sending them this blog post 😉

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