Assertiveness and the Lady Syndrome

As will be a surprise to absolutely no one, I have difficulty being assertive in certain situations. At work, I had no problem expressing my opinion in relation to work matters. I had confidence in my abilities. Unfortunately, in social or personal situations, I am often unable to express myself. While I did go to an all girls school for six years, it wasn’t a charm school (either in the etiquette sense, or the spy sense), so I really don’t think that I suffer from the “ladies don’t…” syndrome (though I do think that I have a propriety veil in social situations that would seem staid and reserved to others).

It’s not just that I am invisible (or make myself invisible) in social situations; it’s that I often don’t stand up for myself. I don’t make demands. I don’t tell people what I want, and I certainly don’t take it. Rather than risk the confrontation, I remove myself from the situation… most of the time. While this approach has always made sense to me in the past, I’m finding that it’s less practical in a city like Los Angeles which is filled with people who will step up and ask for what they want and damn the consequences. These people make the connections, take the meetings, and are forward enough to offer their skills. In a sea of people, I can’t picture myself ever saying, “No, look at me!” I stand in a corner and hope that someone notices how intriguingly gifted I must be (funny how this approach works poorly in both dating and future employment situations).

Having recognized this tendency, I started scouring the web for assertiveness training seminars. Most I found were part of management training. This was not wildly helpful—again, I’m assertive when it comes to work, just not when it comes to being my own advocate. I’m convinced that this is one of the reasons that many writers have agents: we’re great in a room alone with a keyboard, but take us out into the world where we have to sell ourselves (or at least our ideas), and our more internal natures become hindrances rather than assets.

I even checked out actual charm schools (see this fascinating post about the Sears Discovery Charm school: to see if enhancing my ability to carry on inane conversation with strangers might be the key. When that didn’t pan out, I literally Googled “talking to strangers” and landed here: Interesting, but it turns out I don’t fear strangers, so much as I often find them frustrating and tiring (though I did like the idea that everyone is a learning experience, and do believe that many people are actually out to pillage my village).

I decided to start slowly rather than immediately trying for round two of the networking follies. I’ve started to be more social with people I actually know (and like). Through them I’ve started to acclimate myself to meeting one or two new people through clubs, or other events. One or two people I can handle—50 people make me shut down (to be honest, 5 new people make me shut down). And as silly as it sounds, I’ve taken one of the charm school ideas to heart—I have to start dressing like someone who is a capable adult worthy of notice. This is difficult in a city like Los Angeles where t-shirts and jeans are normal even in offices (well, not the one I used to work in, but in many others). I don’t want to show up to casual events in a semi-formal, but I have started focusing on the image I present to the world. Pen and I jokingly refer to this as my social experiment: make-up on, hair done, something with style on the body when I’m out in public (and no, I don’t mean George Clooney draped over me, although…). Only time will tell if this moves me forward into the “force to be reckoned with” category. It’s a start.

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