community educator, writer, herbalist
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love school with sumi: asserting for the love you deserve

Untitled (work in tea) by  Hiba Schahbaz  via  instagram . Reposted with the artist's permission.

Untitled (work in tea) by Hiba Schahbaz via instagram. Reposted with the artist's permission.

being assertive. the most underrated, yet silently coveted ass we give and receive in love. am i right or amirite? 

our breath is the first assertion we make into the world and the innate way we honor our right to be here. every day and every moment. lately i have been touching my stomach for a few seconds as i breathe. just to feel my hand be move. it reminds me - in times when i feel like shrinking - that there is life in here.

but assertiveness is not an equal opportunity practice in the face of oppression. many of us learn this as children. our proximity to privilege shapes how assertive we can be without threats being made to our life. in the US, we see lifetimes of black, native, immigrant, poor, and working class people having to assert the right to exist free from violence. (something we should not have to assert.) eric garner's last words come to mind. his right to breath; a thing no person, no police mob, no nation should ever be able to take from us. an ancestor now, garner's last words still live here, between heaven and earth.


it's true. for many of us, sometimes the safest thing to do has been to not be direct about how we feel. in spite of this, i choose to write about why we should practice it in our relationships, especially with the people we love (where it can often be harder to do). because even people who care about us can't be expected to know what we need.

i realized that hiding who i am won't allow me the life i deserve. that i have to make that life for myself. with a lineage of powerful queer womxn of color behind me, i decided taking up space is a worthy fight. it's a risk* worthy of me.

and we know what a force we can be when we stop playing small.

the backstory: i was given a book called how to be an adult by david richo. one of my practices in self-acceptance these past two weeks has been to carry this book around in public in spite of the self-consciousness that carrying around something that reads HOW TO BE AN ADULT in size 72 font incites in me. in an effort to break my own code enforcement of needing to read a book from acknowledgements to epilogue, i flipped to chapter two: ASSERTIVENESS SKILLS. 

richo's definition:

"assertiveness is the personal power to:

  • be clear about your feelings, choices, agenda
  • ask for what you want
  • take responsibility for your feelings and behavior"

if you're like me, sometimes identifying how you feel is the challenge.** what has supported me in identifying it, is reaching into my gut with my breath to see what images and sensations are emerging in the moment. has my breath stopped. am i holding myself tightly. do i feel foggy all of a sudden. these are ways i communicate to myself how i feel.

richo writes, "passive people do not ask for what they want. aggressive people demand (openly) or manipulate (secretly) to get what they want. assertive people simply ask, without inhibition of themselves or pressure on others."

let's unpack this thought. rather than there being 'x' people and 'y' people, we may all have a tendency to be passive, be aggressive/manipulative, and be assertive in relationship. i may be aggressive with my queerphobic uncle, assertive with my close friend, and passive with my boss. there may be one of these behaviors that is more predominant in my life. there are times when we collectively do want to demand things with pressure - strategically - from oppressive power structures we seek to dismantle.

what i appreciate about this quote is that it notices that there is a difference between naming what we want and demanding or manipulating people - namely, our loved ones and community members - to get what we want.


when people assert their needs to me, a seed of trust is planted. i feel clarity with this person. i can trust when they tell me yes. the firmness of a yes, no, and maybe is such a gift to relationship. imagine the grooves in the earth made underneath an ancient river. nature, which includes us, can be both fluid and defining. i believe part of the journey is noticing where these grooves lay within us; the marks made from our life experience and internal truths, which give us distinction from each other.

              the marble canyon in arizona. photo by my dear friend jess epsten, reposted with permission.

              the marble canyon in arizona. photo by my dear friend jess epsten, reposted with permission.

when i hear someone's assertive no, their unique edges, and their assertive yeses, places which are spacious to them, it feels like they are sharing this map or poem of themselves with me. this map is always being redefined and has the right to change. i've found that the gift of this map allows for more satisfaction in partnership (of any kind). it let's us be seen and felt more by others. even if it means that what i need to say yes to is what they need to say hell no to. even if it means the relationship must end.

i personally grapple with how to maintain connection over time. i have not had many relationships (of any kind) that i've kept over swathes of time. friendships that didn't end dramatically, but just quietly faded into the past. often, i would be scared to disagree with friends out of fear of them disliking or hating me. i'd lead a double life at my job or school because telling my truth might result in getting fired or retaliation. i'd swallow what really mattered or impacted me, in fear that it could result in an unreasonable or even violent reaction from the person i loved.

all of these things could happen and it would make sense that my survival spidey senses kick in to say: don't reveal yourself. don't assert or express what you think or feel in this moment. not saying anything or blending into the background will actually protect you. 

but ultimately what i am is a river. which means i am as wide and varied as my shape. and my life, and yours too, deserves more good surprises and awe than what our survival skills allow us to experience.

so i began to wonder*** if asserting who i am and what is real for me might be the key to more fulfillment in my love relationships. that it would actually be a spell that calls in more of what i deserve in romantic love and friendship, into my life. but it's on me to express that out of my body so that others can know; to open the seams which contain and restrict who i am and what i stand for. assertiveness then becomes less like a thick boundary or wall, and more of an invitation. and i know i am going to have to work really effing hard to do that.

"the art of assertiveness is to ask strongly for what you want and then to [let go of or release expectation] if the answer is No." - richo, how to be an adult

i haven't always received what i asked for in romantic partnership. even if it's something i really needed. (i asked a couple more times to make sure.) one of the hardest realizations was that my partners weren't wrong nor at fault for not being able to meet my need. yes. that breakthrough moment when your emotional wound and equanimity meet. 

the boldest assertions i have made to myself and loved ones this year:

i want to be in an emotionally depthful, joyfully committed, sexually and romantically monogamous relationship.

i need time with myself, outside of romantic partnership, to trust that i radically have my own back in any relationship i'm in.

i took a risk for the love i deserve.


*"assertiveness will feel fearsome and risky. risk really means, 'not in control of the outcome.' when you are assertive, you stop trying to control circumstances or others' behavior. when you are attached to staying in control, you are betraying the part of yourself that is fearless." - david richo, how to be an adult

**"say yes when you mean yes, no when you mean no, and maybe when you mean maybe. (note that assertiveness means being clear not necessarily sure.)" -david richo, how to be an adult

***ode to carrie bradshaw, who's problematic tv-life inspired this column