Doormats and Steamrollers: the 2 Extremes and the Importance of Assertive Communication by Shelby Albright

Communicating clearly can be incredibly difficult, especially when emotions are involved. It can feel nearly impossible to get your point across when you are also trying to manage your feelings. Just take a moment to imagine with me:  you come home after a difficult day, and your partner says something that just doesn’t quite sit right with you, but you cannot figure out why. You then try to speak up for yourself, but your point comes across as harsh or insensitive, which was NOT your intention. The next thing you know, both of you are overwhelmed by this simple misunderstanding and in a full-blown argument. But you can’t seem to understand where you went wrong in trying to communicate a simple boundary. Maybe the answer lies in HOW you tried to speak up for yourself. 

Boundaries are tricky. There is a delicate balance between speaking up for yourself and respecting someone else. Let’s talk about the two extreme types of boundary-setters.

Doormats: the passive communicators. These are the people who struggle to set any boundaries at all. This may come from feeling guilty for speaking up for yourself, or maybe they believe their feelings are less important than others’. They may feel like everyone takes advantage of their generosity, or maybe they feel easily manipulated. For the “doormats,” boundaries are almost non-existent: backing down easily to avoid conflict; not speaking up for themselves; being indirect and unclear about expectations; being overly apologetic. The concept of saying “no” to a loved one seems selfish, but this also leaves them feeling powerless in their relationships. 

Steamrollers: the aggressive communicators. These folks may seem to have too many boundaries, which are non-negotiable, even when they may cause pain to others. Social rules are set in place and will be respected at all costs, even if that means the loss of a relationship. This may be the result of feeling disrespected, defensive, or unheard, which leads to blaming, attacking, and controlling others. It may seem difficult to get a word in edgewise with a “steamroller,” because they may interrupt or yell to get their point across. Saying “no” comes very easily, to maintain control over their feelings and others’ behaviors. Their words are often hurtful and inconsiderate.

You may have heard the term “passive aggressive” before; maybe someone has used that term to describe you at some point, or someone you love. This term describes a disconnect between words and behaviors, like when someone says they agree with you, but they seem angry or resentful. The easiest example is the use of the word “fine,” like when someone agrees to a request but seems unhappy about it, maybe crosses their arms, rolls their eyes, or their tone feels inappropriately intense. Their words and behaviors do not add up, and often seems to be an attempt at manipulation. 

Working toward using assertive communication is complicated, so I like to think of boundaries on a number scale. 0 represents passive communication, while 10 symbolizes aggressive communication. Assertiveness, which is the goal, would be a 5. It seems that people tend to use one extreme or the other. When you become aware of your own tendencies and try to create healthier changes, the number starts to shift toward 5, but you may shoot past your mark (5), and fly over to a different type of unhealthy communication. In attempting to correct your mistake, you may return to your original preset and feel frustrated, like you failed at your attempt, so why bother?  

Here are a few suggestions to help focus your efforts more clearly: 

  • Be respectful – if someone feels attacked, they are less likely to listen to what you have to say.
  • Be clear and direct – facing the conflict head-on will help create a dialogue; think through what you want to say. Find the core of the message you want to communicate.
  • Be concise – keep it short to reduce the possibility that they will misunderstand.
  • Take your time – there is no time limit on communicating your needs. You may feel pressure to respond immediately, but if you’re still feeling emotional about it, you are less likely to stay calm while setting a boundary.

If you struggle to come up with a healthy response, consider using examples in your own life to process your options. Think through possible responses from friends and relatives if they were in the same situation; some of them may be unhealthy, but spend some time thinking through what specifically makes it unhealthy. Use fictional characters or celebrities if you like. If you can create 5 different responses, you can narrow down your options to the most assertive choices and adjust the response to fit your personality.

Remember that speaking up for yourself and expressing your needs is ALWAYS acceptable. The challenge is finding a respectful way to communicate that also gets your point across. Making healthy changes will feel scary, vulnerable, or even rude, but pushing through that discomfort can lead you to create secure, honest, empathic relationships.


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