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Aggressive or Assertive? How to Be Yourself Without Pushing People Away

Have you ever been told you need to be more assertive? Do your needs get bulldozed or do you often capitulate to keep the peace? Sure, we would all love to be more self-confident, but there’s a fine line in between being firm about our needs and being petulant. How do we tell the difference?

If you’re like me you’re ready to live your truth, but you don’t know where to start. It could be something as simple as telling the movers I want my sofa against the south wall, not facing the fireplace. But I don’t spit it out, they put it in the wrong place, and then I just figure “I’ll move it later.”

If I order the wrong thing at a restaurant, I may not bother the waitress to change it. With work, I tend to do the grunt tasks that others shrug off and if someone needs to work the weekend, I’m your woman.

I wish that I could set myself on a direct course for happiness and stop feeling waylaid by the needs of others. I’m taking my name off the sign-up sheet for thankless living, how about you?

1. Embrace the fact that you’re not asking for too much or being a pain.

This kind of thinking is what got us here in the first-place. We don’t want to put anyone out and we have a hard time considering the possibility that our needs are important, no matter how small.

Whatever it is, your needs are normal. You’re not being extraordinary. No one wants someone to jump in front of them in line. No one wants to go along with a plan they think is doomed. No one wants to pay for something they dislike. You get the picture.

Keep your eye on one thing: living your truth. Be compassionate about your values and advocate for yourself. You need to have your own back because no one else can do it for you.

2. Make “no” a priority.

People like us have a hard time saying no. We spread ourselves thin and have trouble enjoying our lives because we think we have to meet all the needs of those around us.

It’s time to say no without making excuses. It’s not anyone’s business why you’re refusing. It’s your time. Claim it. Don’t give someone a five-paragraph essay parsing it out.

This goes for other things, too …

3. You don’t need proof.

According to Dorland’s Medical Dictionary, assertiveness is “a form of behavior characterized by a confident declaration or affirmation of a statement without need of proof; this affirms the person’s rights or point of view without either aggressively threatening the rights of another (assuming a position of dominance) or submissively permitting another to ignore or deny one’s rights or point of view.”

You need to know your point of view. No one says you have to became a world-class debater. You don’t need to write a review of Terrence Malick’s last movie to explain why you don’t want to go see his next film on Saturday. You have a right to feel however you want without having to justify it. By that same token, you can’t control how others feel.

I often find myself in a position where waitstaff at a restaurant wants to know why I didn’t finish my dinner. The answer is because I’m a tiny person. I usually can’t finish a whole portion of anything. And when I do, I gain weight and you’d notice every last inch of it because there’s nowhere for it to go. In the past this has led to me apologizing, sending my regards to the chef. I didn’t want them to have hard feelings because I didn’t clean my plate.

And maybe I don’t want to take my leftovers with me. It may sound strange, but having Chinese food more than once a week doesn’t seem healthy to me. Why can’t I just pretend I ate it? But instead of saying this, I’m learning to just say, “No, thank you.”

4. There’s no statute of limitations on asserting yourself.

This is a special issue for me. I feel like I’ll appear wishy-washy or dumb if I change my mind or correct myself later. I worry I’ll upset someone who had formerly been pleased. But who said I can’t change my mind? Why is that totally off-limits?

Don’t worry about the B-word. Or if you’re a man don’t worry about the A-word. When you’re assertive, those words go flying around. It doesn’t mean you’ve gone overboard. In fact, it probably says more about who you’re dealing with than anything else.

That being said, you must respect the boundaries of others just as you want them to respect your new boundaries. As long as you’re focused on your values, remaining calm and civil, you’re not bulldozing their needs.

5. Make sure this translates to all your relationships.

It’s not enough to just be assertive at home or at the grocery store or with your spouse. We have to break the habit of submissiveness everywhere so we can form new, healthier habits. Being assertive in all areas of your life lets confidence flourish.

Woman on the job photo available from Shutterstock

Aggressive or Assertive? How to Be Yourself Without Pushing People Away

Sarah Newman, MA, MFA

Sarah Newman is the managing editor and associate publisher of PsychCentral and the founding editor-in-chief of the Poydras Review.

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APA Reference
Newman, S. (2018). Aggressive or Assertive? How to Be Yourself Without Pushing People Away. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 11 Jun 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.