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Assertiveness and ADD – Too much or too little?

by Rebecca Shafir M.A.CCC
Hallowell Center

Assertiveness, either too much or too little of it, is a problem for many folks, ADD or not. Gauging how much is too much, or conversely, how little is just enough, can be agonizing. There are a few things we know for sure about assertiveness. For example, we all tend to be more or less assertive with certain people and in certain situations. I have yet to meet a person who's passive or aggressive all the time with everyone he or she encounters. Researchers readily admit that assertiveness is associated with self-confidence and that it is a learned, not an inborn behavior. Add these standards of behavior to an ADD brain and you'll experience an even wider spectrum of assertive behaviors.

As Theresa Garvin, LICSW at the Hallowell Center reports: "My clients will report both extremes - some can't filter out thoughts and so they impulsively blurt out their thoughts/ideas and later regret it- so they may feel too assertive or talkative. They don't think through or plan out what to say and when to say it (or how to). Others work so hard at the self control piece and/or feel so insecure about their own short-comings, stemming from ADD, that they don't assert themselves for that reason (not feeling they know how to do it appropriately nor not feeling they have a right to)."

Another clinician described an ADD client who struggled with assertiveness issues: "One of our clients has been conflict-avoidant her whole life, as has her husband. It doesn't mean that there are fewer conflicts...rather, when the pressure builds up and becomes intolerable; there are explosions, rather than contained corrections. I think all couples have to learn how to address conflict in a healthy way. But, ADD folks get overwhelmed easily, so I think they tend to either be even more conflict avoidant or more explosive than non-ADDers."

Let's review some helpful ways to find more "middle ground" when wanting to be heard in a way that reflects our feelings and, at the same time, limits the risk of offending others.

As a speech/language pathologist I like to start our sessions defining a working definition of what it means to be optimally assertive. These include being honest, respecting the rights and perspectives of others, being direct and firm, etc. After we have created our vision for optimal assertiveness, we look to a model or secret mentor. Many of us know at least one person whose assertiveness skills we admire. These folks appear to have a perfect blend of these characteristics. It's often helpful to study them in action. Watch and listen for their use of language, eye contact, gestures and posture, voice tone and volume, and use of physical distance that combines to make them so effective at asserting their thoughts. How do they match with your vision? Imagine yourself expressing yourself in a similar way in a similar situation.

What we'll find, oftentimes, is that it's not the content of what we want to say but the anxiety, or the belief that "I have no right to feel this way, much less express it." Negative patterns of thinking pose a huge barrier to us being able to live our vision for optimal assertiveness.

Negative self talk can be combated with noting the self-deprecating thoughts that give rise to passive or aggressive actions. Notice the ratio of negative to positive thoughts. When a negative thought rises to the surface, neutralize its power by thinking a positive thought.

Another helpful exercise is to rate situations that call for a healthy level of assertiveness on a scale from easy to difficult. Starting with the "easiest to assert" situations and people (i.e. returning bad cheese to the store owner for a refund) close your eyes and feel how relaxed and comfortable it is to demonstrate optimal assertiveness in this situation. As you imagine climb the ladder to more challenging situations notice your heart rate start to speed up. Counteract this with the same sense of composure you experienced when dealing with the store owner. Breathe deeply, release any tension and let your heart rate return to normal. Getting control of your body is the first step to controlling the tendencies to overreact or shy away.

Achieving a more moderate level of assertiveness requires physical and mental re-adjustment, but the results lead to greater satisfaction with ourselves and others.

There's a wonderful book I use as a reference when helping my ADD clients communicate more effectively. It's called Your Perfect Right by Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons. Other good reads on this topic include On Becoming a Person by Dr. Carl Rogers,

The Assertive Woman by S. Phelps and N. Austin, and Don't Say Yes When You Want to Say No by H. Fensterheim.

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