Healing Resources for Child Sexual Abuse Survivors:Assertive Communication
Even though speaking with other people is an integral part of our life, effective communication doesn’t always come easily. This is especially the case for survivors of child sexual abuse. Developing good communication skills can help you on your healing journey because you will be able to establish and enforce healthy boundaries and fulfilling relationships with others.
What is the Connection Between Communication Issues and Child Sexual Abuse?
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse commonly report struggles with their interpersonal relationships, specifically with regard to communication. These struggles often stem directly from the abuse they endured in the past. The trauma of abuse can deeply affect a person’s confidence, their perception about relationships, and their willingness to open up to others. But these effects don’t have to be permanent. You can take steps to reshape how you express yourself and your expectations for how others communicate with you.
The best thing I ever did was find my voice, and I hope to help others find their voice as well. I know that healing is a journey and you just have to take it one step at a time. Some days you run, some days you walk. Every day you keep moving forward.Emilie, Survivor
What are the Different Patterns of Communication?
Our ability to express ourselves is shaped by our experiences, our observations of others, and our personality. Like many other skills, communication can take several forms, and different circumstances may require a specific approach (like being firm and authoritative when warning a child not to walk into a busy street, and then softly consoling them when they realize the danger they avoided).
Below are some communication patterns we all slip into from time to time. Perhaps you may identify some aspects that arise in the way you communicate or how others communicate with you.
When we are passive, we tend to hold things in and choose not to express ourselves. We may be motivated by a desire to “be nice to everyone,” or we may fear rejection. Maybe we experienced a repercussion when we voiced our thoughts/feelings in the past and decided it would just be easier if we were quiet and avoided conflict. This communication pattern fosters the belief that others’ needs are more important than ours, and that we have less worth than others.
When we are aggressive, we try to gain control of the conversation and make sure we are heard (at any cost). This may include using threats or a loud voice. When we are dismissive of what others are saying, ignore their point of view, or criticize them, we are sending the message that their contributions are wrong or worth less than ours. Aggressive expression can include angry or accusatory tones in the moment, even though we may feel guilty and remorseful afterward.
This pattern often mimics the non-verbal styles of both passive and aggressive communication. However, the emotions involved are usually resentment and fear. We avoid taking direct responsibility for what we say and do. We try to find alternative ways to get what we want instead of confronting the issue at hand with honesty and acceptance.
What is Assertive Communication?
Assertive communication is the ability to honestly express your opinions, attitudes, and rights while also respecting the rights of others. This type of communication includes setting and maintaining healthy boundaries, being firm when needed, delivering messages clearly, and acting with respect, fairness, and empathy. It also allows you to acknowledge both your feelings and the feelings of others.
Learn more as Lauren shares an overview of how to communicate assertively.
As you learn more about assertive communication, you may start to acknowledge what is and what isn’t working in your relationships. Only after you identify why you are upset can you take the steps to change it. Sometimes this means acknowledging truths about your own behavior and taking ownership of your choices before you approach another person. Sometimes it means looking to change the way you interact with another person. This activity can help you look at a specific situation with open eyes and honestly acknowledge your truth.
Elements of Assertive Communication
If this style of communication seems a little daunting at first, it can be helpful to break it down into small pieces. Seeing how they work together can help you understand the power of assertive communication. Take a moment to review the principles below.
One hallmark of assertiveness is honesty. It is helpful to be able to honestly express yourself to others. This includes expressing your opinions, thoughts, needs, wants, beliefs, feelings, and expectations. When you are honest with others—even if it means you are disagreeing with them—others will feel more comfortable being honest with you in return.
Assertiveness includes being clear. As you deliver messages clearly, others are able to understand what you are saying and the meaning behind the words, feelings, and ideas you share.
Assertiveness both offers and encourages respect. This means demonstrating respect for yourself, your needs, and your desires, but at the same time respecting others, including their needs and their desires. The way you communicate can show that you value yourself, while also showing empathy to others.
When you communicate assertively, you use your voice and actions to express yourself without holding things in or becoming aggressive. You hesitate less to share what you are thinking and feeling. Being open with others also includes a willingness to hear what others may want to share and encouraging dialogue.
By using your voice and actions, you are able to advocate for yourself and have more control over your life. You are able to say no, actually mean no, and follow through with what you say. This helps to set and maintain consistent boundaries. Being firm doesn’t mean being abrasive or rude in the way we communicate; it does signal to others that you will confidently stand up for yourself.
All of these elements help us to create and maintain healthy, authentic relationships with others. Keep in mind that a truly genuine relationship is impossible if there are no boundaries and you are hiding your thoughts/feelings from someone.
How Can I Practice Communicating Assertively?
Think of a situation in your life where you want to communicate a concern or problem to another person. Perhaps your best friend has been running late more and more often. Here are some things to do that can help you bring up your concern and discuss assertively:
Ask if this is a good time.
“Is now a good time to talk?”
Listen and work to understand the other person’s feelings.
“It sounds like you have a pretty busy schedule, which can make it difficult to be on time.”
State your concern.
Describe your difficulty/dissatisfaction and tell why you need something to change. Use “I feel” statements which take ownership of what you are experiencing without speaking on behalf of others.
“I feel upset when you’re running late and don’t keep me in the loop. I feel as though my time isn’t important to you.”
Identify what you want or what you’re willing to negotiate.
Be specific with your requests. If you are looking for a specific change in behavior, circumstance, or situation, be sure to voice that. Speak specifically to the behavior rather than labeling the other person.
“I think I would feel less frustrated if you let me know when you are running behind.”
Give the other person a chance to respond.
Listen and reflect back what the other person shares. Work on creatively solving the problem together.
“Maybe, in the future, you could text me if you think you’ll be more than ten minutes late.”
How Communicating Can Improve Your Relationships and Help You Heal
Taking control of how you express yourself and engage in communication combines several positive mindsets that will ultimately help the healthy relationships in your life grow and develop. Communication can also help with unhealthy relationships, whether that means improving the relationship, setting boundaries to manage the relationship at a distance, or deciding to discontinue the relationship altogether. Assertive communication can even help with casual, day-to-day interactions, reversing potentially negative interactions into helpful ones.
It takes a lot of time and patience when changing our communication patterns. As you do, it may feel disruptive to some people in your life and those people are likely going to push back. Don’t let this discourage you from being assertive. Practice a lot of self-compassion even when you find yourself using the other communication styles, which will happen from time to time. So keep doing it and don’t give up!Sarah, Clinician
Overall, assertive communication can help you practice:
- Acknowledgement by understanding how trauma has had an effect on the way you communicate with others. You can own your emotions and how you are processing the events of your life without blaming yourself. You understand your own needs and don’t set them aside.
- Mindfulness by drawing your attention to the present moment and becoming more aware of how you are responding to others. You stay consistent in your convictions and how you express yourself.
- Aspiration by envisioning helpful dialogue with those you care about and working to practice that more and more often. You realize that what you have to say is just as important as anyone else, and that offering your insights not only helps you but improves the world around you.