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  • Writer's pictureCindy Engelstad B.A. ICF

Assertiveness Communication and it’s Role in Recovery

Author: Cindy Engelstad B.A. ICF

Two women having coffee at a table

Communication is an essential part of every relationship — although authentic, healthy communication can prove to be challenging. Assertive communication means standing up for your rights in a direct, positive, respectful and appropriate way and in a way which does not violate the rights of others. It can look like expressing your unique feelings, thoughts and needs including speaking up for yourself if you’ve been wronged. Assertiveness is beginning to say “no” to things you don’t want to do or may feel uncomfortable with. Although initially, speaking up for yourself can be uncomfortable, it’s been shown that healthy assertive communication is an important tool in eating disorder recovery.

Individuals with eating disorders can struggle to speak their true needs, thoughts, and feelings. The eating disorder will often suppress and silence an individual’s voice while convincing them they do not deserve to take up space or be heard. These types of disordered beliefs can lead someone to hide their eating disorder from others, push loved ones away, and withdraw in isolation. In many cases the eating disorder becomes a way to cope with and disguise emotional pain, difficult feelings, and other personal problems that can be difficult to express or process.

Over time, continued passiveness can worsen ED outcomes, which is why healthy assertive communication is such a vital tool to learn in recovery. Assertiveness can begin to help individuals express and deal with difficult feelings and emotions, so they no longer have to turn to food, restriction, and other behaviours to cope. Assertiveness also helps individuals realize that their voice, thoughts and feelings matter, and to stand up against the disordered belief that they should not be seen or heard.

Below are some useful assertive communication skills you can begin to implement in your life. These can help you to begin to speak up for yourself and address emotions and feelings in an increasingly healthy and positive way.

Make a plan: If you struggle to communicate positively with the people in your life, start making a plan and rehearsing important conversations ahead of time. This will help you gather your thoughts and be prepared to communicate them calmly and effectively. You may also consider practicing the conversation with the help of a friend, therapist, or family member.

Use “I” Statements: Instead of saying “You just don’t understand,” or “You never listen to me,” — try saying “I feel hurt when you cut me off and don’t listen to what I’m saying,” or “I want to tell you what I’m going through, but when you interrupt and start lecturing me, I don’t feel heard.” These statements will help you to remember that your thoughts and needs are valid and deserve to be heard. You can being to explore expressing them in an honest, non-accusatory and non-blaming way.

Tell your Truth: Try speaking from your heart and saying what feels true for you in the moment. It is important to do this in a kind and unhurtful manner. Using direct “I” statements are helpful to let others know what you are thinking, as is using the “when you/I feel” structure. Try to be firm, simple and to the point without blaming or demanding.

Pay attention to mannerisms: Including facial expressions, eye contact, postures and gestures. Non-verbal cues can give you the confidence to stand up for your rights, even when you may feel doubtful and uncertain. It also lets the other person know that you’re not there to verbally attack them. You can try practicing assertive body language mannerisms in front of a mirror or with a supportive friend. That way, when you face a real-life situation, your body will be prepared to take a positive and assertive stance.

As you begin to practice assertive communication it is important to remember that not everyone in your life may be receptive to it, as they may have benefited from your lack of boundaries and people-pleasing behaviours. Although you cannot control a persons response to your assertiveness, you can control your reaction to their response. It will be important to reframe any negative responses, and remind yourself that being authentic and assertive with those around you is an important skill if you are to continue a mutually beneficial relationship with each other.

Assertiveness can be a challenge for people with eating disorders, but learning to speak up for yourself in a positive, honest and healthy way is an important part in restoring you self-confidence and listening to your inner-wisdom. Authentic assertive communication is an ongoing process and one that will certainly take practice, but it can and will offer much reward on your recovery journey.


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