Lack of Assertiveness & Relationship Problems

When one or both members of a relationship have a lack of assertiveness it can lead to relationship problems.

In the short term, not speaking up may feel like a good solution. Unassertive people have good intentions: “If I don’t say anything negative or speak up, it will keep the peace.”

But in the long term it leads to problems for the relationship and for the unassertive person.

When one fails to establish boundaries and state a clear opinion, it certainly communicates to the partner that the Submissive person is giving way to the more Dominant partner, as I explain in “Pack Leader Psychology.” The Dominator may then take advantage of the Submissive person in unhealthy ways, perhaps even abuse.

Often a lack of assertiveness is learned in childhood, perhaps from parents who were also unassertive, or from parents who were dominating, emotionally or physically abusive or intrusive.

Children who experience either end of this parenting spectrum. learn that assertiveness is unsafe. Kids of abusive parents learn to lay low and avoid being any “trouble” and stirring up problems. Unassertive parents model relationships that are based on fear of disapproval and fear of conflict. Clearly, neither pattern is healthy for adult relationships.

The helplessness and disempowerment that accompany a lack of personal assertiveness is also unhealthy for the individual, often leading to anxiety and/or depression. When a person feels weak, this can trigger the “fight-or-flight” response, as the person feels unable to manage even the most non-threatening of situations.

This leads directly to feelings of anxiety or fear/stress response. It can eventually lead to depressive feelings as the person gives up (“fold” response to fear) and numbs out the feelings of anxiety that are overwhelming.

Unassertive people also are likely to have low self-worth, which in and of itself can also lead to anxiety. Internal messages of shame and blame trigger the “fight-or-flight” feeling in the brain and body.

In relationships, if a person is not speaking up about her needs, her spouse may also sense her distance and also pull away emotionally and/or physically. This leaves her feeling emotionally alone, which can also trigger the fear response.

It’s a perfect storm of emotional problems all started with good intentions, but ending in many personal and interpersonal difficulties.

When in doubt, speak up!

What Dogs Teach Us About Yawning and Anxiety



A young patient of mind yawns regularly in session — and big yawns that she doesn’t cover with her hand… but manners are a topic for another post. Many therapists might either be offended at her boredom or check on how much sleep she is getting. I knew that it was just a sign of her anxiety.

While yawns can signal a need for oxygen or sleep, they can also signal that a person is feeling uncomfortable or in a fear state.

Arousal or fear travel two ways in the body. The brain can send out signals to the body, as in, “Hey that looks like a snake on the trail. Get ready to run.” Many don’t know that this also works in reverse. The body can also send signals to the brain to be on guard. A person who fidgets a lot or carries tension in her shoulders can also trigger the brain to become aroused and fearful based only on the physical actions. So yawning could also be seen as the body’s way of signaling the brain that it needs to calm down: “There is nothing to be worried about, because I am yawning, a sign of sleepiness.”

I remember when in my early 20s I would yawn a lot in certain settings, not realizing the implications related to anxiety. I now only yawn when I am truly tired.

Anxiety ranging from low-grade to panic attacks also can cause shallow or rapid breathing, which can reduce the amount of oxygen that gets to your lungs. Yawning can be the body’s way of signaling to your brain to slow down the breathing rate. Most of us when we get over a stressful event take a big breath of air and let out our stress with the exhale. A yawn may be a similar attempt by the body to achieve this stress reduction.

But yawns also have interpersonal significance. In the animal world, we know that yawns are a means of communicating anxious states between animals. When a calmer dog is around another more-anxious dog, he may yawn to communicate that he senses the anxiety and to signal to the anxious dog that he should calm down. I’ve heard many dog owners assume that their dog is tired when he yawns, when really the dog is anxious due to the owner’s anxiety or due to a stressful situation. The dog is signaling the owner to calm down, but the owner does not understand this communication.

Observe your dog. Does he yawn a lot in your presence or in certain situations, such as when the kids are acting out? Don’t assume he is tired.

Be sure to check with a physician if you find yourself yawning a lot. You may have sleep quality problems or other medical issues that need to be ruled out. Or you may just be anxious.

Stop the “Broken Brain” Myth

James+Holmes+First+Court+Hearing+Held+Alleged+Z7oHDgrNZTRlIt appears that when James Holmes shot up that movie theater in Colorado he may have done so partly because he felt hopeless that his mental health would ever improve. Apparently, he wrote in his journal that he had been told he had a “broken brain”. He had been given a long list of diagnoses, including schizophrenia, generalized anxiety disorder and psychosis.

Few things make me angrier than hearing this sort of thing from a new patient. They tell me that they have previously been diagnosed with depression or anxiety or ADHD. Then they say something like: “I know my brain is diseased/broken/messed up and I will never get better, but I just want some coping skills to help me get through life better.”

And then nothing gives me greater pleasure than saying this: “Your brain is almost certainly not diseased or broken or messed up. It never was. Whoever told you that is completely wrong. The diagnoses that the medical profession has created for certain behaviors are not actually diseases.

“The way you are behaving is completely understandable given your life experience. Traumas, neglect, an anxious or depressed parent, or even just poor parenting can cause a fearful state in a person that can lead to behaviors now labeled as anxiety or ADHD or depression.

“I can do more than give you coping skills. I can guide you to ways that will likely make you happier and may even completely get rid of your anxiety and depression. I can’t guarantee the results — that is largely up to you — but I can guarantee that you are not diseased.”

This statement alone helps heal people because it gives them hope. It also reduces their feelings of self-blame, which is essential for change.

The core issue for people with most emotional conditions is a sense of shame or low self-worth. Is labeling them as “diseased” and making them feel outcast helping them? Not at all. In fact, a sense of isolation and loneliness is core for depressed or anxious people, so this is exactly the opposite of what we should be telling them. We should be helping them find ways to feel connected to others. I use Compassion-focused Therapy which is based on Buddhist concepts of finding universality in our experiences and common humanity.
The mental health profession, largely led by medically trained psychiatrists (MDs and DOs), has for decades attempted to make emotional conditions into medical diseases. Scientific evidence for functional or biological causes of most emotional conditions has never been found. In other words, brains experiencing anxiety and depression and ADHD are not “broken.” They are merely reacting in normal ways to trauma and fear. (More on that in “Pack Leader Psychology” and in many, many other books and research papers.)

Oh, and not coincidentally this supposed “medical model” for mental illness also helps Big Pharma sell a lot of harmful chemicals that largely have no efficacy and harmful side effects.

To the therapists and psychiatrists and primary care physicians who keep telling patients that their brains are broken:  Please make some attempt to stay current with the research in the field before you misinform patients and harm them. Their self-concept is already fragile. Telling them — falsely— that their brains are permanently “broken” can lead to disaster. As it did for all those victims of the Aurora shooting.

Parenting Lessons from Horse Trainers


739035_2008-half-arabian-chestnut-mare_photo_1_1419540419_imgI walked out into the waiting room at work to meet a new family for therapy and they arrived in the waiting room at the same time. The father was pushing their 6-year-old son into the room. The son was very clearly afraid, hesitant and clingy. The father was irritated and dismissively said: “What are you afraid of? There is nothing to be afraid of. You’ve walked into waiting rooms before.”

I had never met this child but I intervened immediately, addressing him directly: “Would you like to stand here by the door for a bit until you feel OK?” He nodded shyly and clung to his father. Thankfully, the father followed my lead and stopped being demanding of his son. I then commented to the boy (also modeling emotional attunement for his parents): “You looked a little scared when you came in. It can be a little upsetting coming to a new place, can’t it? It can take awhile to feel safe.” He nodded his head again.

I then said hello to the parents and by that time the child was fine. He walked into the waiting room himself, checked it out and then calmly followed me toward my office. His fear and clinging disappeared and he was relaxed. Total elapsed time was about 30 seconds.

I recalled a saying used in horse training that applies directly to the patience and emotional attunement also needed for parenting:

“If you act as if you have 15 minutes, it will take all day. If you act as if you have all day, it will take 15 minutes.” 

Just as with horses and dogs, a lack of awareness of a child’s fears and impatience will merely escalate those fears. Pushing for progress in training will guarantee the opposite.

With that anxious child, all it took was someone to notice his fear and honor it. I allowed him to stay where he felt safe and get his emotional feet under himself, and he then was fine seconds later. I reflected his feelings, acknowledged them and validated them. It was normal for him to feel scared and I shared that experience with him.

Imagine if the father had kept forcing the child into the room, telling him there was nothing to worry about, and perhaps getting increasingly angry and agitated himself. It’s not hard to imagine the child having an angry tantrum, sobbing or otherwise becoming emotionally dysregulated. Instead of 30 seconds of delay, it could have turned into 30 minutes of upset.

And the parent would likely blame the child for behavioral problems.

Then the child gets labeled as having ‘ADHD” or “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” and his self-worth gets lower and his behavior worsens.

Long term, if the child and parent experience enough of these incidents, it leads to a strained relationship due to poor bonding or attachment.

Lack of emotional attunement is at the heart of insecure attachments or bonds in relationships.

So many parents — most in fact — are more focused on behaviors than emotions. They fail to notice very important information the child is sending in a rush to accomplish a task or have the child behave a certain way. They often get a negative result — upset kids, oppositional behavior, and arguing.

Of course, the parents in the waiting room were running very late for the appointment and were anxious themselves. That certainly did not help this child arrive in a new environment in a calm, relaxed mood. Again, parents might blame the child for becoming upset, not realizing their involvement in that incident.

I have experienced this “15-minutes rule” many times when dog training. When I want to give my dog a shower, I take some deep breaths and relax myself first. Then I calmly approach her and slowly lead her into the shower. If I try to rush the process and become impatient, she will resist, making the job take even longer. If she starts to get anxious, I pause and let her calm down before moving forward into the bathroom or shower.

The “15-minute rule” also applies in the therapy room when trying to push patients through an emotional experience too quickly can lead them to never fully feel safe being in those emotions.

For parents, learning to be aware of or attuned to a child’s emotions can improve a child’s behaviors in the short term and the strength of the relationship long term. Research also shows it leads to improved emotional intelligence, improved resilience and a a reduced incidence of anxiety and depression in adulthood. Big gains from such a simple skill — a skill that even horse trainers know about.

What Type of Person Never Admits to Needing Therapy?

It is a truism in psychotherapy that those who actually should be attending therapy are the ones who rarely find their way into treatment.

In “Pack Leader Psychology” I categorized personalities into three types: Dominators, Submissives and Avoiders. Dominators are the types most likely to need therapy yet also least likely to seek treatment. However, the behavior of Dominators is also the most likely to send others into therapy.

Scratch the surface of anyone in therapy for common problems such as depression or anxiety or ADHD and you’ll usually find a Submissive or Avoider whose life has been made difficult by a Dominator.

This shows up in predictable ways such as:

  • a child with an intrusive, opinionated “helicopter parent” who develops behavioral problems or school attention problems due to the parent’s anxiety and over-control
  • a spouse who has been controlled, threatened or even abused by a partner and who is experiencing nervousness, anxiety and insomnia
  • a family member frustrated with a sibling who is attention-seeking, dramatic, and can never be wrong about anything
  • a spouse who believes she has to submit to her husband who argues about everything and cannot back down in a fight

Submissives and Avoiders come to therapy to find ways to cope with the Dominators in their lives. While I can certainly help these patients, especially by helping them be more assertive, my effectiveness is limited because the person who really needs therapy is not in the room.

I actually would love to require that everyone come to therapy WITH the person who is the source of their problems. That would really help the process along! All psychology is about human relationships, after all.

But getting Dominators to show up in therapy or stay in therapy for the long haul is the trick. Because of their strong reluctance to admit any faults, Dominators have great difficulty admitting that they might need therapy or might need to address any personal deficits.

Dominators can’t admit fault because they experience high levels of shame and, as a result, have great difficulty being accountable for their behavior. Challenge them on a mistake and they will lash out at others rather than take the blame.

Of course, if the Dominator were in therapy we could dig deeper and look at their insecure attachments to parents in their childhood to explain this self-protective behavior, but…

This leaves Submissives and Avoiders to seek help to address their own emotional problems that often developed as a result of the Dominator’s behavior. If the Dominator is “always right and never wrong” this sows chaos in the lives of those around them.

While Dominators are reluctant to accept blame, Submissives tend to be very self-blaming. These people-pleasers have learned to default to thoughts of self-criticism. Even if they have been treated terribly by a Dominator, perhaps abused physically or emotionally, Submissives may dismiss feelings of resentment or anger because they “shouldn’t feel that way.” The disconnect between the obvious reality of the Dominator’s inappropriate behavior and dismissal of the Submissive’s true emotions leads to confusion and a loss of authenticity or sense of self. Anyone would be anxious or depressed in that situation!

If you know someone who lacks accountability, does not like to be proven wrong, can’t apologize and hates criticism, you probably know a Dominator.

When I gently point out some behavior patterns in their lives, patients often come to the obvious conclusion themselves, saying: “Sounds like my wife/dad/sister is the one who should be in therapy.” Yep!