Friday, January 6, 2012

A Work in Progress

     Being assertive is not exactly my forte. It's something I've really had to work at, but still haven't perfected. I spent the better half of my day yesterday, ruminating over an e-mail I received from a person in "the establishment", asking me to call him. Although I have absolutely no idea what he wants to talk about, my first instinct is to assume that it's some sort of bad or unpleasant news, and this makes me want to avoid him. I am curious about what he wants to discuss, but because I'm speculating that I'll be criticized for something I did or didn't do, I haven't called him back. Naturally, putting off the conversation is only making it worse. Despite the fact that I frequently find myself in the midst of controversy, I'm not one of those people who thrives on conflict.  I don't enjoy arguing. I don't like feeling vulnerable. For some reason, I resort to catastrophizing and then avoiding situations where I perceive myself as powerless, creating an endless cycle of fear and passive resistance. What's crazy is the fact that I perceive myself as being powerless in the first place. I suppose we are all our own worst enemies.
     I've always been envious of my younger sister's ability to assert herself. If she is unhappy with the customer service she's received, she'll complain to the manager right then. It's second nature for her to return clothing which doesn't fit, and sometimes, she doesn't even have a receipt. She's not a jerk about it, either. She simply expects satisfaction. Several years ago, I bought four pairs of pants at the Gap. This was when I was a third year medical student, and the pants were probably $30.00 apiece. When I tried them on in the store, they looked OK, but standing in front of the mirror at home, they resembled big, baggy clown pants. It was really disappointing. Fully intending to take the pants back, I re-folded and placed them into the original Gap shopping bag, along with the receipt. Several months later, they were still sitting on the guest bedroom floor, exactly where I had left them. It was silly, but I just couldn't bring myself to return them. The thought of going to the register and voicing my dissatisfaction was too overwhelming: what if the cashier refused to accept the proposed transaction? I had visions of the Gap fluffers and folders snarkily cajoling me, reminiscent of that scene from "A Christmas Story" where the sadistic department store elves intimidate Randy, who's scared of Santa, nudging the hysterical boy until he finally goes screaming down the slide.
     I made the mistake of mentioning "the pants" to my girlfriend, Rana. This didn't sit well with her. "How have you made it this far through medical school, without being able to return a freakin' pair of pants?" she demanded, incredulously. "We are going to march into the Gap together, and YOU are going to return those pants!" She couldn't get her head around my complete lack of assertiveness in this arena, and frankly, neither could I. It was embarrassing to us both. That weekend, she and I and the pants drove to the mall. Our plan was for me to confidently plop the bag onto the counter, tell the cashier that the pants did not fit, and ask for a refund, while Rana stood aside as moral support. As we approached the customer service counter, I could feel the paralysis setting in, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. Rana was indignant that I needed to get up to that counter and return those pants, but I couldn't do it. We'd reached an impasse. She ended up taking the pants and my credit card from me, flopping the pants down on the counter, and informing the cashier as she handed her my credit card, "These pants are unsatisfactory, and I'd like you to refund the money to this card." I braced myself, anticipating an epic battle of wills between Rana and the Gap. In a startling antithesis of drama, the pants were returned, my money was refunded, and the world continued spinning on its axis.
     I no longer have a problem returning clothes that don't fit. Over the past ten years, I've learned that I can successfully negotiate a contract, win disputes with insurance companies, and be a satisfied customer. The progress has been slow, but my confidence has grown exponentially. The question that nags at me is why I still revert to shrinking violet mode in situations like yesterday's. Why do I waste so much energy, worrying about what other people think? I've determined that there is an element of inverse proportionality between how personally I tend to take things and the size of the opposing collective unconscious. For example, when I had a problem with Comcast a few years ago, I went through all the usual channels to rectify my complaint about their faulty internet service. When that didn't work, I googled the CEO, and found his office telephone number in a church bulletin, of all places. I called his office, registered my complaint, and not only did my internet get fixed, I received free movie coupons for a year and several follow up phone calls from customer service as well. Although Comcast is a huge corporation, my interaction with them was strictly business. I didn't perceive myself as being particularly vulnerable in that situation, in fact, I felt empowered. Comcast didn't diss me, they fixed my broken internet. Dealing with a colleague or a family member shifts the dynamic to a much more personal level, readily exposing my Achilles' heel. I'm being confronted by a human being, not a nameless, faceless entity. This person knows things about me. He or she knows my strengths and weaknesses and exactly which buttons to push. My vulnerability to criticism is now a function of how much I value the relationship. It's no longer just business, it's personal. Because I allow myself to become overly focused on what the other person thinks, instead of attending to my own feelings and needs, my sense of empowerment gets lost in translation. This is where good self esteem becomes so critical.
     One of my resolutions this year is to apply what I learned about returning merchandise to my everyday personal interactions. Just like the pants which didn't fit, an issue with another person is an immediate call for  action. By simply removing the emotional component from the picture, active listening can occur, an exchange of ideas can take place, and a situation can potentially be resolved without a loss of face or a bruised ego. This kind of personal empowerment would really solve a lot of my problems.  Although I still haven't made contact with the person from yesterday, I did try to call him, but his phone was out of service. I sent him an e-mail, and haven't heard back from him (sigh). Maybe today really will be the first day of the rest of my über-assertive new life. Sounds great in theory; we'll see how it goes over in the real world.

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