Being assertive can seem easy in theory. You simply tell someone what you’re thinking, feeling, wanting or wishing. You express yourself in a clear, firm and respectful way.
But there are many things that can prevent us from being assertive. It might be everything from our own mindset to a lack of skills.
Below, psychotherapist Julie de Azevedo Hanks, Ph.D, MSW, LCSW, shared three obstacles that may stand in our way, along with how to overcome these hurdles.
1. You fear disconnecting with the other person.
You might worry that the other person will get upset when you assert yourself. You might worry that expressing your needs will create distance or conflict between you.
Hanks, founder and director of Wasatch Family Therapy, suggested these steps for navigating this fear:
- Recognize that it’s a universal fear. “We are wired for relationships and for connection with others, so the feeling of being excluded or rejected is a core fear.”
- Accept your fear and reflect on how likely it is to come true.
- Reassure yourself that being assertive is actually a powerful way to strengthen your connection with others. In sharing your thoughts, feelings, needs and wants, you’re sharing what’s going on inside you. This “builds intimacy.”
- Remember that courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway.
Here’s an example from Hanks: An adult daughter wants to assert herself with her aging mother. Mom has a difficult personality and few friends. She relies heavily on her daughter for companionship and cooking.
The daughter is married and the primary caregiver to her three young kids. The daughter wants to tell her mom that she needs more time with her family. But she’s afraid of hurting her mom’s feelings, and having her withdraw into a depression and from her.
Going through the above steps, the daughter recognizes and accepts that this conversation is scary. She has self-compassion for her feelings, which include guilt. She reflects on “her assumption that her mother will have the worst possible response” and considers that she might respond favorably. Maybe her mom feels pressure to spend time with her daughter. She also reflects on who’s responsible for her mom’s lack of supportive relationships. She questions whether it’s her problem to solve.
The daughter practices telling herself: “This may be hard, but it will help in the long run. I don’t want to carry resentment about my mother. I want to be able to be myself and to be honest and to have my own needs and wants.”
She asks her mom to talk, saying: “It is wonderful to have you so close and for my children to have such a strong bond with you. I appreciate your company and love having you over for dinner and accompany me to run errands. I’ve noticed that I am feeling the need to spend some time with just my little family. I wanted to let you know that I will be taking them to run errands and to some activities. I also would like to reserve Tuesday and Thursday for my own little family dinner. How does that sound to you?”
2. You don’t have the skills. Yet.
Many of us have a hard time articulating our thoughts and feelings. We might be passive and vague about what we need or demanding and abrasive. Thankfully, this is a skill you can learn and practice.
Hanks suggested communicating your needs in this way: “I feel __________(your feeling) when you ___________ (other’s specific behavior) because I think ___________(your thoughts). It would mean a lot to me if ___________(your request).”
For instance, a partner might say, according to Hanks: “I feel sad when you come home after work and turn on the TV because I think I’m not very important to you. It would mean a lot to me if you would give me a hug and we could touch base for 10 minutes before you watch TV.”
She shared this example with a parent and child: “I feel scared when you don’t come home right after school, because I think something bad may have happened. It would mean a lot to me if you would text or call if you’re planning on going somewhere after school.”
She also suggested sharpening your communication skills by taking workshops and e-courses; reading books; and working with a therapist individually or in a group setting.
Another key component of being assertive – which many people forget – is having emotional management skills. “Even if you have the assertive communication skills, if you are emotionally overwhelmed or shut down, you may not be able to access your skills,” said Hanks, author of the book The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women.
The first step is to become emotionally aware. Hanks suggested setting a reminder three times a day to consider how you’re feeling in that moment. You can pick a word from this list. “Simply naming your emotion decreases the intensity of it, making it more manageable,” Hanks said. “Dr. Dan Siegel calls it ‘name it to tame it.’”
It’s also helpful to take three deep breaths before doing or saying anything, she said. “It allows you to calm down your fight, flight, freeze response and access the thinking and meaning-making parts of your brain, so you can effectively use your assertive skills.”
3. Your self-worth is low.
You believe that you don’t deserve to have a voice or to have what you want, Hanks said. “This can be the most difficult obstacle to overcome, because these core beliefs are often just the branches on a tree with very deep roots in childhood experiences and relationship patterns. [And they’re] often linked with intense emotions.”
This is when seeing a skilled therapist can help, she said. Together you can explore the emotions and experiences at the basis of your core beliefs.
In the meantime, Hanks suggested trying this practical exercise to build self-worth: Write down 100 things you like or appreciate about yourself. (You can find other ideas and techniques here and here.)
Being assertive is not easy. But the good news is that it’s something anyone can learn and practice.
Shy man photo available from Shutterstock