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How Expressing Difference Brings Connection

The concept of assertiveness is one of my favorite topics, and I’m excited to share  some of the key points from my new book “The Assertiveness Guide for Women: How to Communicate Your Needs, Set Healthy Boundaries, and Transform Your Relationships.”

What is assertiveness exactly? Contrary to what some may think, it’s not being pushy, rude, or aggressive. In the book, I define assertiveness as the ability to reflect on one’s past and present experiences, manage one’s difficult emotions, and clearly express oneself while also being open to someone else’s perspective (that’s quite a definition, right!). Some women may fear or shy away from assertiveness because they think it will threaten their relationships, but practicing it is actually the only way to get your needs met while also maintaining a closeness with others.

Differentiation of Self

As I was developing and researching for my book, I  remembered an important concept from my psychological training that is very important to this discussion: differentiation of self. This refers to the ability (or inability) of an individual to comfortably separate oneself from others emotionally. Think of how a toddler might shout “no!” when her father takes away a toy. This is an example of how even at a very young age she is expressing that she thinks and feels differently; she has her own wants that are separate from her parent’s.

How is differentiation of self related to assertiveness? When a woman asserts herself, she is differentiating her needs, thoughts, feelings, or wants from another person. She is essentially saying, “I’m think something different than you. I have other feelings than you do. I’m not you.” True assertiveness, as I define it, means that this is done in a way that’s not alienating or rude but still clearly makes those differences known.

Separate and  Together

In healthy relationships, individuals can be close to one another while also retaining certain differences; we don’t have to be exactly alike to be friends! Though we often are drawn to like-minded people, we can have varying views on religion, politics, and culture without them getting in the way of our friendship. In fact, some of the people that I’m closest to and learn the most from hold very different opinions than I do!

Women with low levels of differentiation tend to either completely conform to someone else in order to avoid conflict, or completely separate themselves and essentially abandon the relationship. The goal, of course, is to retain our own identity in a way that makes it possible for us to still be close to others. Developing emotional management skills, getting clear on one’s own values, understanding our attachment style (a theme I discuss at length in the book), and practicing assertiveness are all ways that we can achieve this.

It’s so interesting how all these themes are woven together, isn’t it? Assertiveness, differentiation of self, and other topics like shame, vulnerability, and boundaries all give us the vocabulary to frame our experiences as human beings, especially as we strive to become closer to one another.
If you’re interested in learning more about how assertiveness can help you (as well as ways to develop it), you can download the first chapter of my book for FREE or purchase it here.

(c) Can Stock Photo / AntonioGuillem

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About Dr. Julie Hanks, LCSW:
Dynamic self & relationship expert Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW loves to make a difference for women. She owns Wasatch Family Therapy and regularly contributes to KSL TV's Studio 5, and her advice has been featured nationally including Wall Street Journal, Parenting, Fox News, and others. Connect on Facebook & Twitter. Her book The Burnout Cure is available now and The Assertiveness Guide is available now.

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