Why do we find it so hard to be assertive with others?
At its core, assertiveness is a way of sharing your thoughts or feelings with others in way that allows both people to be respected and valued. Assertiveness is not the same as being aggressive. Assertiveness ensures that everyone’s rights and points of view are respected while still communicating important information.
- When we talk aggressively, we essentially threaten the rights of others or deny them their point of view through dominance.
- Being passive is simply a way of submissively permitting others to ignore or deny our rights or our point of view.
- When we are assertive with others, we are affirming our rights or our point of view.
Sometimes, you can use one form of communicating while disguising it with another. Passive-aggressive communication is a good example of this, where someone may be angry but they don’t act in an overtly aggressive way by yelling or hitting, instead they may sulk or slam a door.
- Aggressive: Violates rights of others. Own needs have priority.
- Passive: Violates own rights. Others needs given priority.
- Assertive: Respects both own needs and needs of others.
Many people try to talk themselves out of being assertive. They may argue that assertiveness is basically the same as being aggressive. Or complain that being assertive doesn’t actually work in getting them what they want. Or they may fear that they will have to be assertive in all situations. None of these are accurate,
Remember that the goal of having healthy boundaries is to strike a balance between not being firm enough and being overly harsh and uncaring. Without this balance, our self-esteem can plummet. We never express ourselves or we conceal our thoughts and feelings. As a result we feel anxious, resentful and our relationships are out of balance. We confuse having healthy boundaries with being aggressive and uncaring, so we don’t know how to change our patterns with others.
How to Become More Assertive
In order to become more assertive, you first have to look at how you learned to be unassertive and passive:
- How did your family handle disputes?
- What was their response to conflict?
- How did your parents teach you to react passively?
- What messages did you receive from the adults around you?
- In what ways did you learn to get what you want without asking for it directly (for example: Crying, yelling, making threats, and so on)?
- Do these strategies still work for you today?
There are often valid reasons why we become unassertive. As children, teenagers, and adults, our behavior reflects the behaviors modeled for us in our families or communities. If being assertive got us into trouble with parents or friends, we learned to be passive. Or if aggressiveness was valued in our family, then we may have learned that same behavior pattern. Consequently, many of us learned assertiveness from someone else who also followed the same patterns.
It may be more helpful to think of your lack of assertiveness as a vicious cycle that you and your family have been caught in. Now that you’ve decided to break the cycle and learn a new assertive way of acting and thinking, the hope is that you won’t pass on these unhelpful behaviors to your children and friends.
There are a number of factors that can stop us from being assertive.
In a situation where someone is being unassertive, the most common issue is that they have self-defeating beliefs about the pros and cons of speaking up. They feel like the consequence of speaking up might be greater than it really is, or that they don’t have a right to speak up. This often causes them to stay unassertive. They worry about things such as, “If I am assertive, it will upset the other person and ruin our relationship” or “If I say what I think, it will be humiliating”.
We may also have a skill deficit. We watch others be assertive and admire their behavior, but we have no idea how to be like that ourselves. This contributes to our own inability to be assertive.
Anxiety may cause you to feel unable to act assertively. Stress may also prevent you from thinking clearly. For these reasons, it is important to learn how to manage our anxiety and stress levels before they take us over.
We struggle to evaluate if a given situation calls for us to be assertive, aggressive or passive. This often comes from our inability to distinguish between these different types of communication (yes, even passive!).
Cultural and generational influences can also shape us when it comes to assertiveness. For example, in some cultures, assertiveness is not valued as much. This can make it difficult for someone who is from a given culture to stand up for themselves. Sometimes, in these cases, the positives of living by cultural values compete against the advantages of being assertive.
Measure Your Level of Assertiveness
Let’s say that you want to start working on your assertiveness. As the old saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else. So to get started, you’ll need to know what your level of assertiveness actually is, right here and now, at this point in your life. And since each situation is different, we need to look at a variety of scenarios where you might have an opportunity to be assertive. For example, here’s a list of seven common types of relationships:
- Authority figures
- People we don’t know
- Friends that identify as male
- Friends that identify as female
- Co-workers or school peers
- Our spouse/partner
- Store employees
I’m going to have you to think about how easy it is for you to be assertive with each of these groups of people. To be fair, each situation is different, so I’ll also give you a list of some common situations. I want you to rate yourself from zero (meaning no problem) to five, meaning it is very difficult for you to be assertive in this situation.
For example, let’s look at a situation where you have to “Say No” to someone. Let’s start with “Authority Figures”. How would you rate yourself?
Ok, what about strangers (people we don’t know)? Or your co-workers? For each type of relationship, you want to check your comfort level with being assertive in these different situations.
Here’s the list of some common situations:
- Saying No
- Giving compliments
- Expressing your opinion
- Asking for help
- Expressing anger
- Expressing affection
- Stating your right and needs
- Giving criticism
- Being criticized
- Starting and keeping a conversation going
Keep a copy of your responses. This will serve as your “Baseline”. Anything that you rated yourself as a “two” or lower, we’ll want to keep an eye on as you learn how to be more assertive.
Keep in mind that this is all a broad, general overview of assertiveness. What it is, and what it isn’t. To actually learn the skills you’ll need to increase your assertiveness will take more than a simple summary like this.
- Assertive communication is a way of expressing your needs, thoughts and feelings.
- Aggressive communication is when we talk without respecting the rights of others.
- Passive communication results when we don’t share how we think, feel or believe at all; we end up violating our own rights.
- There will always be situations in which we find it difficult to be assertive, no matter how good we are at it.
- If we are unassertive, over time this can negatively affect our self-esteem.
- Unassertive communication patterns are learned from our environment.
- The situation we find ourselves in may make it very difficult to be assertive.
- Our own beliefs about what is right and wrong often compound our inability to be assertive.