Just over a year ago, I started this Assertive Spirituality project—and with it, to my knowledge, coined the term “Assertive Spirituality.” My first post on this blog started out with a friend’s question about whether Assertive Spirituality was “a good thwack over the head.” I responded by including a definition of assertiveness from the textbook I teach out of in my Small Group Communication university classes. I might possibly have failed to adequately point out the connection between assertiveness and courage in that early definition. This article is designed to fix that by drawing attention to the risks and rewards that come with the practice of Assertive Spirituality.
Over the last year, many visitors stopping by, many of which didn’t stop to figure out where they were and what the project was all about before commenting, have brought their own views of what “Assertive Spirituality” would be defined as.
It seems that while many found a welcoming place, to others, yes, Assertive Spirituality seemed to feel like “a thwack on the head,” whether I wanted them to or not. And of course the problem is that those who experienced it as a thwack on the head–well, some of them loudly, some quietly, thwacked back. It took a lot of courage to stay steadfastly assertive in the face of some of that occasional aggression.
I’ll be talking about the courage of responding assertively in those scenarios in this article–because that side of the social media presence of this project has certainly brought home to me that link between assertiveness and courage over the last year in new ways.
So Many Assumptions about Assertive Spirituality!
So yes, since that initial definition, all sorts of people have come onto this site and/or interacted with our posts. Some have joined us and some not. They’ve all come with their own assumptions and presumptions about what Assertive Spirituality would be or would look like—and sometimes REALLY strong (sometimes negative, sometimes positive) reactions to the things I’ve posted here.
The strongest negative comments popped up over on Facebook when I started putting words and terms around topics that aroused conservative Christians’ strong “moral disgusts” (I talked about this in a series starting here) and especially poked at those things that I saw as wrapped up in “god terms” and “devil terms” pairings (I talked about this in a series starting here) as well as “halo effects” and “horns effects” (I talked about these terms here).
That these negative responses would come up around these topics did not shock me at all, which doesn’t mean I didn’t find them hurtful at times. I worked hard to apply ALL my strategies to deal with these situations when they came up. (I was just thankful not all the posts were controversial ones–and that many more people seemed to appreciate the posts than those that took them as thwacks and thwacked back!)
So Many Visceral Responses
Here’s an important thing to remember when you’re enacting Assertive Spirituality—many definitions about assertiveness and spirituality, much less reactions to attempts to live them out, are not fully rational in nature. (For the record, none of us is rational all the time.) All of our views of and reactions to spirituality and conflict are grounded in deeply visceral, strongly socialized reactions to the world.
(I talk about this more in the free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Trolls” you get if you sign up for the email newsletter–I’ll remind you how to get that at the end of this article, so stick around! Thanks for your patience as I unwrap the complexities of assertiveness and courage.)
Indeed, it’s important to remember all our initial responses to such things, at least, are also similarly visceral at times. That fact is not always an issue or something to be suppressed. But it is something to be dealt with honestly and channeled in the right direction as well as possible—hard though that may be.
It Takes a Village
All of which is to say that managing this site for the last year has made me super thankful for my resources and support system to help me manage the nastier types of comments.
Even with all my nifty terminology and tricks and tips to apply, and my years of university teaching them under my belt to make them easily accessible, it’s taken a village to support me in staying sane while moderating some of the more controversial posts on this site.
Life in the Arena
I really want to point that out–the fact that it’s taken a village, this project. That’s primarily for two reasons:
- To thank all of those people (you know who you are) that helped me stay sane while dealing with the worst of the poison. Bless you.
- To point out that when you are assertive, however much you protect yourself (and it is wise to do so as you can), it is a risky endeavor. It’s one worth doing, absolutely. But as Brene Brown puts it, it’s definitely life “in the arena.”
That last one is particularly important to note when going back to the definition of Assertive Spirituality.
(Re)Defining Assertive Spirituality
See, assertiveness, as I defined last year, is all about trying to apply core principles of spirituality—especially those surrounding reaching for the common good and loving others as self—toward assertively trying to solve problems in society in ways that don’t hurt the marginalized and oppressed.
As I defined last year, being assertive means avoiding both passivity and aggressiveness, and showing concern for both self and other and especially for solutions that meet as many needs as possible.
Assertive Spirituality as Putting You in the Arena
The thing is that being assertive, in practice, often means wading into the arena where our passive sides would normally be hanging back–often, let’s be honest, for valid reasons–but often also with overblown caution. On the other hand, it also means directing our natural fight impulses toward the problems rather than the people (which sometimes means we need to find other outlets to burn off the excess stress response before or after lest we get resentful or burned out!).
Assertive Spirituality also means channeling our fight responses into asking for true civility and respect for self and others. And refusing to hang back in the false civility of “Nice” when that hasn’t been achieved.
The trickiest thing is that when you’re engaging in the kind of assertive spiritualities we’ve been talking about here, that means that you’re sticking up for both more reasonable AND more empathetic and humane discussions. And often doing so when your own socialized responses are trying to either drag you away from the discussion kicking and screaming or trying to get you to tear the “opposing party” limb from limb.
Now that I Threw Down Some Sunshine On that One…
No one said it was easy. And for goodness’ sakes, none of us can be perfect at it. Or keep going at it unendingly without rests and important self-care.
A Shift Toward Integrity
What engaging in this practice of Assertive Spirituality does, though, is allow those of us who have strong principles about loving our neighbors as ourselves and working toward the common good to live our lives with integrity.
Brene Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, calls this thing I’m calling integrity “wholehearted living.” I like that, but I like the old-fashioned term integrity even better. I like that word because it reminds me of the state of integration of self most trauma therapists and psychologists help people strive for.
In other words, the more you live with integrity–truly standing up for the principles you say you live by, as well as you can, and asking others to also live toward the common good–the more it helps you feel at peace with yourself. And it turns out that that sweet spot of doing what you can but not expecting to do everything? That’s a pretty peaceful place to be.
Let me say that again: One huge thing I learned in this past year and all the years building up to this past year is that the closer I get to speaking up with assertiveness about the things that matter to me as I can, the more at peace I feel.
Doesn’t Mean It’s Been Easy
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. That doesn’t mean I’ve been immune to stress or shame or any of the visceral responses.
It doesn’t mean any of that. (Those in my support system could happily testify to that.) It hasn’t even made me immune to trauma in my lifetime–though practicing assertiveness has played a huge role in helping me recover from some of that trauma.
I’ll be honest: starting this project has brought me stress and at times extreme discomfort. (Let’s just say that being called a “false prophet of Satan” or being consigned to hell weren’t exactly on my bucket list.)
Again, It’s a Risky Endeavor
The tricky thing is that lots of people get frustrated with seeing people trying to live with integrity and the mix of channeled impulse and impulse control that makes the dance of assertive spirituality. Especially when they might be better at “Spiritual Nice” or “Spiritual Mean” than actual assertiveness.
That means that Assertive Spirituality often brings up aggressive responses on one side and passive ones on the other. And ironically, both sides tend to look down their noses with disapproval at you if you’re in the arena but not “playing by the rules” of unhealthy aggressivenesses or unhealthy passivities.
And especially when you’re speaking into the topics that most need assertive intervention? Well, those are often the situations where you’re bound to provoke some unpleasant responses.
Can’t Win Them All
The thing is that no matter how hard you work to communicate your assertive intentions, and no matter how well you may be doing it from the perspective from neutral observers, you’re simply not going to persuade every person who reacts poorly that you’re being either assertive or spiritual enough for their tastes.
It’s simply not possible, nor necessary to win all battles. Nor is it necessary or wise to take on all battles. BUT it’s always worth doing what you can. And the things I’ve learned from communication studies and related fields are profoundly useful in that process, so I’m going to continue to work toward offering them to you in this space and others.
We Need Each Other—Both In and Out of the Arena
The thing is, we need each other for this Assertive Spirituality endeavor to go well. If you have people who can help remind you that you’re not responsible for everything, but you ARE responsible for doing what you can, and others who are willing to jump into the arena when you need a break, it’s possible to enter this arena without leaving fully depleted.
Indeed, none of us can do everything. But we all can do what we can, where we are, with what we’ve got. And the most beautiful thing that I’ve discovered as this project has gathered such largely delightful people around it is how encouraging and supportive it is to do this work with others.
THAT—the idea of doing this assertive spirituality thing together, and supporting one another as we do it—is stress-reducing. (Plenty of stress research confirms that’s not an accident.) And as I said, it’s amazing how stress-reducing living with integrity is as well (much research stands behind that finding as well).
In Which I Express Gratitude
And so, despite the slings and arrows of the first year, I’m diving into the second profoundly pleased to have put this project together. It’s helped me, and others have told me it has helped them. I’m so glad for that.
I certainly have done what I can, but since I study and teach communication, I’m always extremely aware that communication has little to no meaning without audience response. And Lord knows I haven’t been able to control that. Most of the time I haven’t even wanted to. 😉
I’m humbled by those who have found what I’m trying to do here valuable. And I’m profoundly honored by those who have joined us.
One Final Note
Just a quick note before I move on. As you might have guessed from the above and from other things you may have read from me, I don’t think conflict management or assertiveness are matters of simple tips and tricks.
But as I’ve said, I DO very much find the concepts and terms grounded in research really helpful for figuring out how to navigate this challenging ground surrounding stress, trauma, conflict communication and assertive spirituality together. I know I’ll do my best to be there for you as we all seek to practice the courage that comes with Assertive Spirituality.
Assertive Spirituality Resources for Everyone!!!
There are already lots of articles on this site that can help you with some of unwrapping how some of that works, and lots of shareables over on the FB page to get assertive conversations started on challenging topics. But memes can only go so far. And blog posts, however long, can only scratch the surface of some of this stuff. If you’d like more in-depth trainings or courses or longer writings or talks, I’m working on that—and do get in touch if you’re interested in offering opportunities.
In the meantime, though, the most specific tips and tricks I’ve offered to date are in the “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” PDF. To get it for free, sign up for our weekly email newsletter in the top bar of this page—or subscribe while making a comment—and confirm your email address, we’ll send you the link in the final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around.
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s keep doing what we can where we are with what we’ve got to make a better world for us all. We can do this thing!