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Friday, March 7, 2014

O Stree, Be Assertive!

We often encounter people, be it in the house or in the streets, either behaving submissively or aggressively. Rarely, we come across people behaving assertively. Women are no exception to this phenomenon. Indeed, there is a strong misconception or you may like to call it as gender bias, yet it has pervaded far and wide: Women tend to be more submissive…? Nevertheless, let us take a look at these styles of behavior and see where we fit in and if there is a need to alter it what style to pick up and how to make it happen…obviously, to enjoy the life better...

1. Submissive Behavior

As the name suggests, submissive behavior confines one’s actions to certain narrow margins. People prone to be submissive are often found to be low in self-esteem/self-confidence, believe that they are menials, their needs are not valuable and they deserve no attention or care. They tend to leave decisions to fate or to others. They hope to get all that they want but expect others to guess their needs and even arrange for them. Indeed, such people think that by being submissive, they can maintain good relations with others. But what they forget is:  being submissive, they end up in an unhappy life since Sarvam para vasam dukham—‘all external dependence is sorrow’. They have a typical body language of their own: Hesitant stance/shy posture; head bowed/held to one side; avoiding eye contact; coughing nervously; looking downcast, etc.

1.1 Submissive behavior leads to: 
  • being sensitive, they do not want to give pain to others. 
  • make themselves vulnerable to manipulation by others;
  • remain isolated and suffer in silence and, in the process, they often don’t get what they want;
  • being of ‘self-depreciating’ nature, they avoid confrontations and take no responsibility for their actions;
  • being not willing to take responsibility they leave their dependents/those who look at them for guidance in a state of suffocation, anger, guilt, frustration/disgust, eliciting scant respect from them as they are of no use to them either in directing them or in improving their performance (don’t you think this is what children feel about their submissive mothers/fathers?);
  • such people can be pushed over by everyone.  
2. Aggressive Behavior 
As against this, aggressive people tread on others’ rights—indeed on their toes. They communicate in an ‘uncivil-tone’. They express their views quite threateningly. Their way of talking often puts the other person down. To achieve this effect, they stand close to others pointing/wagging fingers and using a loud hectoring tone. The drive behind such aggressive postures is to somehow win in all the situations, at any cost. They feel self-righteous, controlling and superior. And, the sole aim behind such behavior is simply to achieve their target.

For instance, look at this scene from Ramayana. In Aranyakanda, Surpanakha comes to Rama, Sita and Lakshmana who were relaxing in front of their hermitage.

Surpanakha has an ugly face, large belly, deformed eyes and coppery hair and looks monstrous. She has a frightful voice.

Seeing Rama with a radiant countenance, mighty arms, eyes large like the petals of a lotus, and a majestic gait, wearing a rounded mass of matted hair, tender, yet possessed of extraordinary strength, endowed with the bodily marks of a monarch, cerulean like a blue lotus, Surpanakha gets infatuated with Rama.

Overcome with passion, Surpanakha asks Rama: “Who are you to be here in our region? This is the jurisdiction of my brother. What is the object of your visit? Be pleased to relate that.”

Rama reveals thus his identity: “There is a king named Dasaratha. I am his eldest son known among the people by the name of Rama. He is my younger brother, Lakshmana. She is my wife, the princess of Videha, known by the name of Sita. Bound by the command of my father, the king, and my mother and seeking to discharge my sacred obligation to them I have come to stay in this forest. I now want to know of you: Whose daughter are you? What is your name and whose wife are you? Tell me truly what for you have come here.”

Surpanakha then replies: “I am an ogress. Surpanakha by name, and capable of assuming any form at will. I haunt this forest alone. I have a brother called Ravana, the valiant son of Visrava. The very mighty Kumbhakarna too is my brother. Vibhisana is my third brother. My other two brothers, Khara and Dushana, are well-known for their valor on the battlefield. I definitely surpass them all in point of valor.”

Then she makes horrid advances: “O Rama! Ever since I saw you, I am struck with your beauty and wish to have you as my husband. I am richly endowed with power. What can you accomplish with Sita? Being frail and ugly too, she is not worthy of you. I alone stand as a match for you. I will gobble up your brother along with this ugly, vile, hideous human lady with a sunken belly, Sita. Freed from these impediments, you and I can wander forth in the forest— beholding the peaks of mountains—and enjoy ourselves to our heart’s content.”

Rama replies: “O lady, I am already married. Here is my beloved wife. For ladies like you, the presence of a co-wife is most painful. Of course, here is Lakshmana, my younger brother. He will be a fitting husband for such a one as you. Take to him. Don’t bother me.”

Hearing what Rama said, Surpanakha—infatuated as she was with love—suddenly turns to Lakshmana and says: “Possessing as I do an excellent complexion, I shall be a wife worthy of this comely form of yours. You will happily wander through the entire range of the Dandaka forest with me.”

Then Lakshmana smilingly replies to Surpanakha: “That gentleman is my master. I am his servant. So, if you marry me, you will have to be the servant of a servant and also be the servant of Sita too. So, O large-eyed lady, be a happy younger wife of my elder brother, who is fully endowed with all riches.

The hideous woman, however, not being able to understand that they are making fun of her and infatuated with love, goes to Rama saying, “Now look here. I am going to marry you. If you think this vile, hideous and aged wife is an obstacle, I shall devour her right now while you are looking on.”

Saying so, she rushed toward Sita like the noose of Death.
And we all know how this episode ended.    
2.1 What aggressive behavior results in:
  • Relaxing and unwinding become a distant dream for such aggressive managers even after they overcome the anxiety in a particular situation        
  • Aggressive people make all those with whom they interacted feel humiliated/depreciated/hurt; make them hostile/angry; resentful, distressed/fear the aggressor; and silently work for revenge.  
  • This obviously makes their future transactions with others more difficult.  
3. Assertive Behavior

Assertive people, on the other hand, are known to speak up or stand up for themselves or others without diminishing the other’s rights. These people are known to tell people what they want, and deal with others confidently without threatening them. Such people make requests and state their points of view in a confident, straight forward manner without getting loud, annoyed or angry. They cooperate with others in solving problems at an adult level so that both the parties can share the thinking process and get most of what they want. An assertive person exhibits the ability to cope with other’s manipulation and criticism without responding to counter-criticism/manipulation or withdrawing with hurt feelings, guilt or shame.

So, assertive behavior, as Albert and Emmons (1971) defined is an open and flexible behavior, genuinely concerned with the rights of others, yet at the same time able to establish very well one’s own rights. Assertive people          
  • Value themselves and believing that they have the right to express their opinions and get their needs met.      
  • They are willing to share themselves with others, rather than holding everything inside.         
  • They respect the rights and needs of others.     
  • They are able to choose how to respond to people or situations.  
  • They feel okay about themselves, their needs, and actions.  
Now, let us take for instance, how Sita behaves in the same Ramayana, when in Ayodhya Kanda Rama goes to her and tells: “I am now going to the forest for fourteen years at the behest of my father.”

She at once says, “I am going too.”

But Rama prevents her. Indeed frightens her describing the horrors of the forest, for he could not entertain the idea of such a delicate lady putting up with all the trials and tribulations of jungle life. Hence, he repeats the warning umpteen times—the poet expends almost 17 verses to impress upon Sita how painful the life in forest would be, tasmat dukhataram vanam. 

But Sita, knowing what matters most to her, questions him: “Wherefore do you tender me this advice, which makes me look indeed so small, O Rama, the case of women neither father nor son nor their own body nor mother nor their female companions serve as an asylum here or hereafter. The husband alone is their refuge at all times.”

She goes on saying: “If you depart this very day for the forest..., I shall walk ahead of you crushing blades of grass and thorns that lie in the way. Casting away envy at my courage in voluntarily offering to accompany you to the forest, and wrath at my insolence in flouting your command to stay in Ayodhya, confidently take me along with you to forest... Focusing myself on my dharma of serving my husband, I shall live happily in the forest as I would in my paternal home. Serving you everyday with self-reliance and practicing sacred vows, I shall live with you in woodlands fragrant with honey.”

She confidently argues: “The disadvantages that have been enumerated by you as accruing from an abode in the forest will become nothing but blessings for me since I am foremost in your affections. In the event of a separation from you, tvad viyogena me rāma tyaktavyam iha jīvitam—I shall cast away my life in this world” .

Driven by a strong passion for remaining by the side of her husband, come what may, Sita even taunts Rama: “kim tvā amanyata vaideha pitā me mithilā adhipa / rāma jāmātaram prāpya striyam purua vigraham—What my father, the king of Mithila belonging to the country of Videha, think of himself having got as son-in-law you, a woman having the form of a man?” (II.30.3).

Being a brave woman, she even challenges him: “What are you afraid of? What are the things which you dread that you should reject me who have no other person to rely on earth? I am yours entirely, utterly, and yet you discard me. Where is your moral courage gone?”

She continues to argue: “O Rama, that a wife who stands disunited from her husband would not be able to survive....I certainly know there are sufferings of various kinds in the forest. …Following my husband to the forest with devotion I shall surely be absolved from all guilt, …for the husband is the supreme deity for a wife. ...If you do not feel inclined at all to take me, I shall resort to poison, fire or water to hasten my end” (II.30.19). 

Sita, thus, entreats Rama—which is an amalgamation of threat, persuasion, entreaty, preaching of duty, and exposition of the sanctity of marriage—in many ways to let her accompany him.

This obviously compels Rama to gracefully take her with him to the forest saying, “be with me my partner in all that I have to do in the forest.”
3.1. What assertive behavior results in
  • It is a positive way of behaving without violating others’ rights despite the other party’s taunting. 
  • There is a kind of integrity that goes along with assertiveness.        
  • Being assertive does not mean that one cannot freely and effectively refute, support or enhance others’ views.        
  • It simply enables him to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘may be’.      
  • Enables to voice one’s opinion, observation or concern without diminishing others’ rights.       
  • Helps to keep oneself always in control of himself while drawing the full attention of all those with whom he/she interacts.         
  • Facilitates to draw people in and enlist their support. 
4. So, What to choose

Do you have any option except to cultivate the art of being assertive in your behavior! But if the big challenge is how to go about it … well! …  If that is what is bothering, give a trail to the following:
  • First, know what you want to say: Be sure of your needs.
  • Say it: Don’t beat around the bush. Shoot it out right away but check out its appropriateness.
  • Be specific: Say it clearly so that there would be no confusion. Start with “I”.
  • Say it as soon as possible: Delay breeds apprehension. At the same time, do not say it at the peak of anger.
  • Look the person in the eye: People feel more at home when someone looks into the eye and says what he wants.
  • Look relaxed: Rigid postures/waving arms around/shifting weight from one foot to the other conveys anxiety, which is contrary to assertiveness/confidence.
  •  Avoid laughing nervously: It contradicts what you are saying.
  • Don’t whine or be sarcastic: Be direct and honest as it eliminates manipulative environment and puts the other person at ease. 
These tools would certainly put a person in control of himself but they do not guarantee control over the other person. It is likely that the newly acquired assertiveness may not initially be appreciated by the people around, more so in places where submissive behavior got institutionalized over a period of time. Yet, repeated practice cements ‘assertiveness’.

To conclude, remember what Dharmapada said: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought”. So to be assertive, one needs to constantly think of being assertive and in being so, succeed to cultivate Samatvam, ‘equanimity’—of being neither submissive nor aggressive, in one’s interactions with others. Only such assertiveness, which is laced with ‘equanimity’, can ensure Karmasu Kausalam—‘efficiency in action’. It is sure to enable an individual enjoy better relations with others and to that extent one’s ‘quality of life’ stands bettered.


Keywords: International Women's Day, Assertive Behavior, Submissive Behavior, Aggressive Behavior



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