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Mindful Relationships Part 2: Assertive Communication

By Michelle May, M.D.

This excerpt from Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating explains why your relationships with others are an important part of healing your relationship with food and your body.

Bringing mindfulness—intention and attention—into your relationships with others reduces conflict, decreases emotional distress, increases your opportunities to meet your needs, makes for more satisfying connections with others, and decreases the likelihood that you will turn to food to try to meet your need for satisfying relationships. An important part of recovery is to replace your relationship with food with relationships involving other people. Food will then take its proper place: nourishing and fueling your body.

Start by setting an intention for your relationships, such as, “I will strive to be respectful, attentive, and loving toward myself and others.” Focus your attention during your interactions in order to actively listen, validate, assertively communicate, and resolve conflict. 

Assert Yourself to Improve Your Relationships

Passive-communicationMany people use food to stuff, express, or deal with difficult, uncomfortable, or painful emotions. This often leads to the Overeating Cycle or the Binge Eating Cycle. In contrast, assertiveness is a way of expressing one’s boundaries and needs directly, with the goal of improving relationships and increasing intimacy.

For example, people who are afraid of conflict and expressing anger will avoid confrontation, and instead turn their anger inward or bottle it up until they ultimately express it in an explosion of rage that feels out of control and scary. This reinforces their fear of expressing their anger, creating a destructive cycle.

However, anger is a normal emotion that can be dealt with effectively and assertively. Assertiveness is a way of taking responsibility for your thoughts, feelings, and needs and ensures that you will create healthy and self-protective boundaries in your relationships. Assertive communication increases the likelihood that you will get your needs met and enables others to know what you want from them without being “mind readers.” When you’re able to express your displeasure, you give the other person the opportunity to learn what types of behavior will be damaging and what types of behavior will enhance the relationship.

Assertiveness Training 101

Assertive-communicationPeople often confuse assertiveness with aggressiveness, but one of the chief differences is where you place your needs relative to others:

  • Aggressive: Consistently placing your needs ahead of everyone else’s needs.
  • Assertive: When you consistently find a healthy balance between your needs and others’ needs. At times your needs come first, at times others’ needs may come first.
  • Non-assertive: Consistently placing everyone else’s needs ahead of your own.

Assertive Communication

The key to assertive communication is taking responsibility for your own feelings and communicating your needs clearly without being passive, aggressive, or both. When you communicate your needs without blaming or judging, and state what you want, need, or prefer, you give others the ability to decide whether to meet those needs.

Blaming or accusing someone by using “you” statements, such as, “You hurt my feelings,” tends to make the person feel defensive and pushes them further away. Conversely, “I” statements, such as, “I feel hurt,” puts you in charge of your own emotions and reactions, and draws the other person closer. The following script will help guide you.

When you ________________________ (describe behavior),
I feel/felt _________________________ (describe feeling)
and I want/need/would prefer __________________ (describe desired behavior).

Example:When you speak critically about me, I feel hurt and inadequate. I need to hear you say that you love and appreci­ate me more often.

In addition to these I statements, assertive communication includes non-defensive body language, good eye contact, and clear messages delivered in a calm tone. Practice using this script to communicate your feelings, thoughts, and boundaries to others effectively and assertively, instead of reaching for food.

Read Mindful Relationships Part 1: Personal Boundaries and Eating

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About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

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