An important skill to have during recovery—and in life in general—is how to stay true to ourselves while participating in relationships with others. Unfortunately, it’s not a skill that most of us are taught. Instead, we grow up believing that in order to be in a relationship, we need to always put the other person’s needs before our own—and that the only way to truly be ourselves is to be by ourselves. But there’s a better way.
We’re all born with two very strong drives: The drive to attach to our caregivers, and the drive to become our authentic selves. Throughout childhood, we find these two drives coming into conflict—and, more often than not, the one more necessary for survival (the drive for attachment) wins. We need to attach to those who can feed us and provide the care we need. It’s basic biology—but it doesn’t come without sacrifice.
Imagine a small child asking his mom for a cookie.
Mommy says: “No, we’re having dinner in an hour so you have to wait to have a cookie.”
The kid starts to throw a tantrum. “I want a cookie; I want a cookie!”
Mom, exasperated, yells: “If you don’t stop that, you’re not getting any cookies at all!”
The child says: “Okay, I don’t really want a cookie now,” and pretends not to be disappointed and frustrated in order to appease their caregiver.
Now, this conflict is over something small (wanting a cookie) but if you grew up in a troubled household, you can easily apply it to larger issues. And you know how diminishing it is to constantly pretend that everything is okay when it’s not.
As we enter into adulthood, the tendency to choose attachment and connection with others overstaying connected to our authentic selves remains—even though survival is no longer at stake. If we’ve learned that achieving attachment means sacrificing our true selves, we believe that the only way to be our true selves is to be by ourselves. This leads us to isolate and create walls—which then become our prisons. And we rely on coping mechanisms to combat the overwhelming loneliness.
Shopping, sex, alcohol, drugs, disordered eating behaviors—these can all become part of the pattern as we do anything to distract or numb ourselves from the pain of feeling alone. And the pattern is perpetuated every time we abandon our true thoughts and feelings for obsessive or addictive behaviors, to once again act like things are okay when they are not—or to choose attachment, saying yes when we want to say no. It all leads to more loneliness.
Fortunately, there’s a way to break this pattern and have both attachment to others and connection to your authentic self: assertive communication. By honing the skill of assertive communication, we’re able to learn how to participate in healthy relationships while also staying true to ourselves at the same time. It’s an invaluable skill to learn in life—and, I think, the most important recovery skill.
Like any other skill, assertive communication is one that anyone can learn and practice—and I look forward to helping you do just that in my upcoming course. So, here’s to you learning how to communicate in a way that strengthens your connection to your true self while also creating healthy, lasting relationships with others!
Now I would love to hear from you, how as assertive communication helped you in your life?