How To Stop Being a Doormat
Linda Gerber returns to workshop our upcoming book on "Verbal Streetfighting" and discuss how agreeable people can become more assertive
ON THIS EPISODE OF THE BEST MEDICINE PODCAST
Our Guest: Linda Gerber
Welcome to another installment of my ongoing series with Linda Gerber, my amazing sister. She is a success and speaking coach and we are currently working on a book together on the art of “Verbal Streetfighting.”
On each episode we go over strategies, tactics and principles you must understand to master inter-personal conflict, relationships, persuasion and communication.
How Nice Guys (And Girls) Can Finish First
We’ve all heard the phrase “nice guys finish last.”
For those who haven’t it is a phrase used in dating to indicate that guys who are too nice, too agreeable, and too soft are often looked over in favor of other men who are capable of more aggression and bluntness.
Maybe I’m a bit of an old timer, but it seems to me that the choice of “nice guy” (or as some of the younger fellas call it, “beta”) or “asshole” (or “alpha”) is a bit of a false choice. At risk of incurring “OK Boomer” replies from anybody under the age of 35 in the comments, I am a believer in being a mensch, a gentleman, a classy guy.
One must be kind, tender and empathetic, while also being capable of aggression, mystery, directness, and charisma. There’s a reason we have all of these modes of being and it’s because they all have their proper place.
In my many years as a doctor I’ve seen the flattening of personalities in my profession. We are not meant to be “people” any longer, simply white lab coats with the ability to give prescriptions. I refuse to be this flat with my own patients - and nine times out of ten they welcome the interaction with a three dimensional human being!
Most people in any professional environment are flat. They’re either too “alpha” or too “beta.” Too mean or too nice.
In personal and romantic contexts too there tends to be a role people take in the “games” of dating or socializing.
And it’s true - those who choose to be the “nice” one often finish last. I’ll have another article for the “assholes” at a later point in time. Today I want to focus on how agreeable people can get their needs met in relationships and social groups without abandoning the good parts of being “nice”
What is Trait Agreeableness?
The Big 5 Model, or the OCEAN Model of Personality was re-popularized to a mass audience from 2015-2017 by Dr Jordan B Peterson. Dr Peterson himself has his own additions to the model, which are worth discussing at a later date.
The basics of the model are as follows:
- Everybody’s personality has 5 dimensions. Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.
- You can either be neutral in these areas, high in these areas, or high in their opposites (for example, you can either be very open minded, neutrally open minded, or close minded).
- These personality components are largely genetic and/or set by early life experiences.
- People can gain competence and comfort in areas they lack (a lazy person may become conscientious if they are sufficiently motivated), though they likely will be limited in how much they can develop those skills.
- A person’s natural disposition determines how they gain energy. A naturally introverted person can learn to be social, but they’ll never be as energized by discussion or socializing as an extroverted person.
Agreeableness is the trait we will be discussing today. Agreeable people tend to be people pleasers, and “go along to get along.” They are often very kind, but will continue to act positively even if they are upset or uncomfortable with someone.
Agreeableness is an essential trait for many to have. Women tend to have higher trait agreeableness, which has proven incredibly advantageous in evolution. They are better able to tolerate children and are able to socialize and charm men as a way of disarming conflicts with people who are usually larger and stronger than them.
Agreeableness can be important for forming friendships/relationships, fitting in at a workplace and avoiding conflicts with strangers over minor conflicts. But too much agreeableness will lead to passivity, or being a “doormat.” “Nice guys” who “finish last” have too much trait agreeableness and must develop some of the opposite trait - disagreeableness. Disagreeableness helps you say “no” when you’re uncomfortable, establish boundaries in relationships, display honesty even on difficult subjects of conversation, and take moral stances against a group consensus.
Think about it, if Person A in a relationship is way more agreeable than Person B, they’re both going to do what Person B wants all the time! Person A’s needs won’t be met, and Person B likely won’t realize Person A is suffering.
How To Become More Assertive
If you’re an agreeable person - it’s time to toughen up. Here’s three tips to become more assertive.
1. Become okay with discomfort
If you’re overweight and want to become healthier you must exercise and eat better. This will cause soreness, make you tired, and cause hunger. It makes you uncomfortable. But you know what they say: “your goals aren’t achieved in the comfort zone.”
If you want to get your social life in order the same principles apply. The only way to get comfortable dating is to go on a date. The only way to get comfortable with public speaking is to give a performance.
The only way to become more disagreeable is to start setting boundaries with people. This will be uncomfortable for you - but realize that’s GOOD. This discomfort is not a moral one. It’s discomfort in the same way that being out of breath while on a long run is uncomfortable. Pain can indicate growth. You know that when you’ve left your “comfort zone” that you’re engaged with the process of learning and neurologically re-wiring your brain to grow as a person.
You can learn to embrace discomfort in your big goal by accepting discomfort in other areas. If you have a huge goal at work, you might up the intensity of your workouts to build your discipline. Try taking cold showers, exercising, fasting or learning a new skill as a way to familiarize yourself with discomfort.
2. Become clear about expectations upfront
We’re going to take a baby step. Once you are familiar with discomfort it’s time to start entering the social realm. Obviously disagreeable people have no problem starting conflicts. We’re not going to begin there.
We’re going to begin with the opposite - conflict prevention. See, as an agreeable person, you have a strength that disagreeable people lack - ENDING conflicts. Disagreeable people often have anger problems. They alienate others, can’t shut their mouths, and offend people easily. They’re not upset when others don’t like them, so getting a disagreeable person to stop an argument can often be an annoying task. But agreeable people can be more diplomatic.
The next time you begin a new activity with somebody, or meet a new person - you’re going to set a boundary.
By setting a boundary you are practicing disagreeableness in two ways.
- It’s a low-stakes way to assert yourself BEFORE there’s a problem (which is the best way to avoid ever having problems with people, generally)
- If someone crosses your boundary it’s much easier to remind them they agreed not to do it than it is to have an argument about it out of the blue.
For example: If you’re with somebody who always talks too long on the phone next time you call them run this script:
You: Hey! How’s it going?
You: Awesome! By the way, I only have 10 minutes to talk today so I’ll have to go at [TIME] for my meeting, but I’ve been wanting to talk to you about [and so on, and so on]
Then if 10 minutes pass and they’re mid-story, you have every right to say “Hey, my meeting is starting, I actually have to finish up. Let’s talk more later.” Now you’ve avoided being “rude” while still enforcing a boundary and sticking to your guns.
3. Train your conflict muscles
Sometimes conflict is unavoidable. Conflict can actually be excellent though. One of Jordan Peterson’s less well-known ideas is the ratio of healthy conflict in relationships. Apparently, there is a CORRECT amount to argue with your spouse. Couples who had roughly 1 argument for every 10 neutral or positive interactions did better off than couples who never argued, and couples who constantly argued.
Obviously you want to be married to somebody you get along with. But there aren’t two people on the whole planet who can spend their whole lives together and not disagree on something. We instinctively know that (which is why trait disagreeableness AND trait agreeableness exist - to maneuver those situations).
I find that practicing conflict with your spouse is often the best place to start as that one relationship should be the safest place for you to do so, will be most positively impacted by your learning of the skill, and will most benefit you to improve. Plus, if you can’t tell your husband or wife how you really feel - who can you tell?
There are entire books written about how to handle conflict with your spouse - but if you’re a very agreeable person, there are two simple tactics I’d recommend.
- “When X happens, I feel Y, because Z”
Imagine your husband doesn’t clean up after himself properly. An incredibly disagreeable person might say “You’re a slob, and I hate that!” These are fighting words and will only make it worse. But an incredibly agreeable person might say nothing at all - which prolongs the problem and builds resentment.
Try this: “Hey honey, when there’s a big mess for me after work it makes me feel aggravated because I’m already so exhausted.”
- Repeat it back to them
One of the easiest ways for something to escalate is for people to play “telephone” with eachother by mistake. Don’t lose track of what the other person is saying!
The husband in the above example might deploy this tactic by saying “Babe, the last thing I want is to make you feel even more exhausted than you already are from work - of course that’s aggravating. Thanks for letting me know.”
The issue is, of course, the mess. But it’s also not about the mess at all. Conflict is so often about the feelings UNDERNEATH the thing we’re upset about. The mess is only the surface layer, but underneath that is exhaustion and frustration, and underneath that is a question of “did I marry someone who doesn’t care about me or the cleanliness of our home?”
No wonder agreeable people don’t like confronting those feelings! When you are able to accurately repeat somebody’s response back to them then they will feel understood and listened to. Agreeable people are already great at that - from there, you must simply add your own “When X happens I feel Y because Z”
Relationship health is absolutely critical. Our friendships, workplaces and marriages are some of the key parts of our lives. Without having harmony and love in those contexts our physical and mental health WILL be destroyed.
You can wait for your divorce to happen then come see a psychiatrist in my clinic for a depression medication OR you can be proactive and work on your relationship health NOW.
It’s just like making sure to get your daily walk, vegis and glasses of water in as a baseline habit so you don;t have to get a life altering surgery after years of poor nutrition and lifestyle.
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Dr Bradley Werrell