Being “nice” is one of the most notable hallmarks of the Land of 10,000 Lakes that I used to call home. Not only is the population known for its agreeable nature, the whole state is, at least in legend—as National Public Radio veteran Garrison Keillor describes Lake Wobegon—a place where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
That’s right. Nice, handsome, strong, and above average. I really didn’t believe that growing up. I’ve never considered myself nice or particularly tactful. And “Minnesota Nice” is really more often thought of as both “Minnesota Ice,” and “Minnesorta Nice.” Some Minnesota transplants have called natives like us chilly. Others just cut to the chase and call us passive aggressive.
Yet no matter how hard I tried to separate myself from Minnesota Nice, I never really learned how to be assertive or to stand up for myself without being verbally aggressive. How does anyone (in the heat of the moment) let go of her need to be heard? Or to be right?
No one I’ve met has any easy answers to that. Old, ingrained habits die hard, I guess. As Himalayan Institute yoga teacher Sarah Guglielmi puts it, many of us have only ever known two methods of communicating—“culturally, we’ve been educated either to “put up or shut up” or to yell and scream.”
But by all means, no one should ever be a doormat. That’s what Yoga International senior editor Irene Petryszak discovered—in a reflection on her marriage and how to practice nonviolence, she notes, “I remembered the wisdom of the sage who reminded a bruised and battered snake he had once advised to practice ahimsa (non-harming): ‘I told you not to bite, but I didn’t tell you not to hiss.’”
That lesson certainly woke me up. Here are a few more tips I learned from Guglielmi that might help you stand up for yourself, too, in a more conscious, kinder way—without caving in.
In the heat of an argument your first impulse might be to judge or overpower the other person. Pause for a moment instead. Ask yourself how you actually feel, what you need right at that moment, and why. “Typically, when I’m angry or sad, there’s something I’m wanting or needing that is unclear to me, or I’m overreacting out of habit,” says Guglielmi. Recognizing what these feelings and needs actually are, she says, gives you the power to choose what action to take – whether it’s to ask something of the other person, ask something of yourself, or simply let it go.
Recognize that communication is a skill and, like anything other skill, you need to practice it till you get better at it. It’s bound to be awkward, at least in the beginning. If you’re interested, try letting friends or your partner know what you want to accomplish. They could become the basis of a supportive community for experimenting with other ways of connecting or communicating.
Still upset? If you feel like a storm is a’-brewing inside you minutes or even hours after an exchange, try to come back to your breath. Focused breath awareness calms emotional reactions. You can do this by practicing sandbag breathing or breath awareness in crocodile pose, says Guglielmi, or while sitting at your desk or in any chair. Just sit still and focus on re-establishing a smooth, continuous, even, and deep breath.
Fostering habits and techniques like these might not be the instant fix you’re looking for to rein in a runaway temper, but over time each one will hone your ability to observe your own emotions without reacting.
Looking for additional reading? Guglielmi recommends checking out What We Say Matters by yoga’s own pioneering teacher Judith Hanson Lasater and her husband Ike Lasater, or Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg.
We’d love to keep this conversation going. What helps you get your needs met without overreacting? Add your own recommendations or responses in the comments below.