To be, or not to be…assertive. That is the question I pose to you.

My hospital room when my assertive  appendix demanded its release.
The view from my hospital bed on Memorial Day.

Being assertive is a challenge for me, but apparently not for my appendix, which choose Memorial Day to demand its freedom. That evening, I happily complied, and a surgeon put my appendix, and me, out of our misery.

(BTW, I’m perfectly happy without that little wormlike appendage to my colon. I’ve recovered quickly, thanks in part to the many doctors over the last century who contributed to the development of laparoscopic procedures.)

The day after my surgery, an interesting dilemma presented itself–to defend myself, and risk offending my surgeon, or to stay quiet. I choose a middle ground, and I’d love to know what you would have done.

To be assertive may risk causing offense.

In my memoir, which is written and soon to be agent-ready, I explore the roots, manifestation, and consequences of my excessive agreeableness. I own the sad truth that my inability to stand up for myself made it difficult to stand up for my son Matthew during his long rumble with a childhood brain tumor.

For many years, I was well aware of my reticence toward speaking up. There were times I tried to be assertive, but mostly I stayed in my comfort zone where others’ needs took priority over mine.

Being assertive is outside my comfort zone.

But with my uncomfortable truth ready to be laid bare to the world on the pages of my memoir, I’ve been making a concerted effort to be stronger, more assertive, to speak my truth.

Part of what makes it hard for me to speak openly is my fear that I’ll offend someone. That’s what happened with my surgeon.

The morning after my appendectomy, the diminutive man with thinning hair, square glasses, and nutmeg skin stopped in to check on me, and give me my discharge instructions. In a thick accent, he sped through the dos and don’ts. I caught a few snippets–showering was OK, swimming was not, no lifting, call his office if I had any problems.

“So I don’t need to schedule a follow-up appointment with you?” I asked when he finished.

“Yes, you do!” he said with a laugh, “I just told you that.” His laugh didn’t hide his derisive tone.

What I wanted to say, also with a laugh, was, Well, you have a very heavy accent and you talk too fast, so don’t blame me.

But that seemed rude. I was afraid I might offend him. I didn’t want to sound prejudiced.

So what I said, with a smile, was, “Well, you gave me a lot of information, and I’m just trying to take it all in.”

This was growth for me. In the past, I might have said, I’m sorry, I must have missed that. Or I might have been too embarrassed to say anything.

I took a step in the right direction by not taking the blame, and not feeling the shame. But I regret not being more assertive, and I don’t know how I could have responded without offending the person who had held my life–or at least the life of my inflamed appendix–in his hands.

I regret not being more assertive.

The dilemma is, when you want to stand up for yourself, but you don’t want to offend someone in a way that is antithetical to your beliefs, what do you do?

Since I’m learning to navigate these new waters of assertiveness, I’ll ask you–

What would you have done?

I’m in mental health therapy. It’s no big deal.

Photo courtesy Pexels.com

I have a therapist—a mental health counselor—who I see regularly.

It’s no big deal.

I’m not mentally ill. I don’t have drug or alcohol addictions. And I’m not in the middle of a big transition like divorce, serious illness, a loved one’s death, relocating, losing a job, or starting a job.

And yet, I see a therapist.

My point is that you don’t have to have a specific diagnosis or life-altering crisis or HUGE problem to engage in counseling. It doesn’t have to be a big deal.

Mental health counseling doesn’t have to be a big deal.

I’ve been in counseling many times in my life, starting when I was an overweight 16-year-old, my self-esteem in the toilet. In college, and as a young adult, I also sought help. And then again in 1997, when motherhood overwhelmed me because my 10-year-old son Matthew was falling apart from what would later be diagnosed as a brain tumor. (OK, that WAS a big deal, but we didn’t know it was first.)

Recently, three life events sent me back to my therapist:

  • Writing my memoir, and re-living the challenging years of parenting Matthew through his brain tumor.
  • The pain and isolation and frustration of my chronic illness, year six.
  • Growing pains. Sigh. Yes, still, at 60.

Mental health counseling is more than a bandaid.

My husband has strong shoulders to cry on, and my friends have ears open to listening, but sometimes I need a neutral, skilled party to help me weed through the surface shit and find the core of what’s bothering me. Friends and loved ones are sometimes just bandaids–very caring and soothing, but bandaids all the same. Therapy is like open-heart surgery–it gets to the source of the angst.

Some people don’t “do” counseling.

Earlier in my career, when I was a student assistance counselor in elementary schools, if I assessed a student who could benefit from counseling, I would ask the parents to consider it.

“I don’t DO counseling,” I often heard.

I get it. Some people would rather have a tooth pulled than to bare their souls to a stranger. Some people don’t feel the need to dig deep into their personalities or lives to figure themselves out. Some people won’t air their “dirty laundry” beyond family or friends. There’s no judgement here.

But if you had a recurrent pain in your calf or elbow or any there body part, when it got to be too much to bear, wouldn’t you see a doctor to treat it?

If you had a toothache, wouldn’t you see a dentist to stop the pain?

If you’re confused or sad or angry or don’t know how you feel, but you know you feel something and you want to feel better, why wouldn’t you reach out to get that help?

I reach out for help from a mental health professional because I love figuring myself out. I feel and think very deeply about just about everything…as my husband would attest. I’ve got more layers than an onion, more sides than a prism. Counseling helps me understand myself and my relationship to the world. We all have just one chance at this life, and I want to be my best self as I fumble through.

Mental health counseling is like running a marathon.

I love counseling in the way that some runners love marathons. It’s hard work. It’s usually painful. It challenges you to push through fear and self-doubt and find your inner strength. It makes you a better person in the end. For me, it’s all about personal growth, and counseling is the ultimate fertilizer.

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness month, I’m sharing my “no big deal” story in hopes that it will normalize counseling. I hope to de-stigmatize asking for, and receiving support from, a professional to help you obtain, regain, and/or maintain your emotional health.

Despite my convictions, I’m nervous about this disclosure.

In spite of my conviction that counseling need not be hidden because there’s nothing to be ashamed of, I’m still a little nervous about “outing” myself to the world on this topic. It just goes to show we all still have work to do.

I hope you’ll do the work with me. If you want counseling, I hope you’ll get it. If you’re in counseling, I hope you won’t hide it. If you’d like to “out” yourself here with a comment, go for it. I’m with you 100%.

Together, we can make caring for our emotional selves no big deal.

Resources:

How do you find a therapist? Click here, and below for some resources.

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-depth/mental-health-providers/art-20045530

Also, many states and local governments have departments of mental health, or behavioral health, and may help you find sliding fee services.

When apologizing is a sign of strength.

Person breaking free of handcuffs.
Breaking free of handcuffs. Image courtesy Pexels.com.

When I was a sophomore in college, I drove to Fort Lauderdale for spring break with my two roommates. It was my first time in Florida, first time on a road trip with friends, first time being threatened with arrest.

We were at a bar somewhere on the boardwalk. Most of the patrons—the guys, at least—sardined themselves into the back of the room around a low stage, whooping and hollering at a wet T-shirt contest. The air was a haze of cigarette smoke. The floor was sticky with beer, covered in peanut shells, and littered with empty plastic Solo cups.

When I finished my beer, I didn’t want to throw my cup on the floor. I didn’t see the big deal in throwing it in a trash can. Trouble was, I couldn’t find one. Wandering among the drunken hordes, avoiding the stage and the wet floor surrounding it, I searched for a place to deposit my empty cup.

When I got near the front entrance, I saw an overflowing receptacle just outside the door. Stepping out into the glaring light, I paused for a moment to reflect on the ribbon of people waiting to get inside. The line seemed endless. The bar must have been full to capacity, and a bouncer stood guard, waiting for people to leave before allowing new customers to enter.

I tossed my cup, then returned to the dungeon of debauchery.

After my second beer, I didn’t bother searching inside for a trash can. I knew right where to go. One step out, one step back in. Except this time, the bouncer stopped me.

“On no, you don’t,” he snarled at me, “you butted line once, you’re not doing it again.”

“But I was just …”

“I don’t wanna hear it. Go to the back of the line.”

“But I just …”

“Girlie, if you don’t move now, I’ll call the cops and have you arrested.”

I was stunned. The bouncer’s words stung like a slap to my face, and my face burned in response. My sense of injustice at being wrongly accused was crushing.

I’m trying to do the right thing, I wanted him to know. But my hands were effectively tied, and I knew I had to leave.

Shaking, heart pounding, gesturing wildly, I pleaded with the bouncer to let me back inside to retrieve my purse. He threatened to come in and find me if I wasn’t out in five minutes. I hurriedly found my purse, told my friends what happened, and waited for them outside. As soon as they joined me, I broke down, sobbing.

The fact that I remember this incident, and that I can still conjure the hurt, says a lot about the depth of that hurt.

It comes to mind today because I’m in the middle of a similar hurt.

It doesn’t involve beer or bars or garbage cans, and the only wet T-shirts are my husband’s in the washing machine.

But the hurt involves unwarranted accusations against my character. My attempts to defend myself are being ignored. My hands again are effectively tied.

This time, my accusers are people whose opinion of me I value. Hearing their condemnations is crushing.

The wound is still fresh. It’s so deep, I can’t imagine how it will heal. Writing about it, exploring my thoughts, sharing it here is part of my healing process.

In most interpersonal conflicts, each party has some culpability.

I believe that in most interpersonal conflicts, each party has some culpability.

In this recent conflict, I recognized my culpability, and apologized–in person, and via phone, text, email, and snail mail. None of the other parties has apologized yet. But I’m not responsible for them. I am only responsible for myself.

Undue apologizing–when you haven’t done anything wrong–is usually a people-pleasing, victim-y reaction borne of low self-esteem. Women fall into this trap more often than men. However, when an apology is justified, delivering that apology takes courage.

Apologizing, when justified, is courageous.

Even more courageous, requiring incredible restraint, is to apologize without requiring an apology in return, even when a return apology is warranted.

What strength it takes to say, “I’m sorry,” and to let that stand alone when an I’m sorry is due back to you.

I’ve learned that one of my super powers is to hold myself accountable for my mistakes, to apologize when necessary, and to let go of my expectations of other’s apologies or lack thereof.

Apologizing without requiring an apology in return is my superpower.

It doesn’t always feel good. In fact, right now, it sucks. But I’ll hold myself to a higher standard. That feels good. That will help me heal. No matter how much trash lays at my feet, I will always move toward the light.