“Assertiveness is all about being present in a relationship,” according to Randy Paterson, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and in Relationships. In other words, you’re able to articulate your wants and needs to the other person, and you welcome their wants and needs as well.
Being assertive is starkly different from being passive or aggressive. Paterson has a helpful analogy that distinguishes the differences. He explained:
In the passive style, all the world is allowed on stage but for you — your role is to be the audience and supporter for everyone else. In the aggressive style, you’re allowed on stage but you spend most of your time shoving the others off, like in a lifelong sumo match. With the assertive style, everyone is welcome onstage. You are entitled to be a full person, including your uniqueness, and so are others.
“Assertiveness involves advocating for yourself in a way that is positive and proactive,” said Joyce Marter, LCPC, psychotherapist and owner of Urban Balance, LLC. It also means being clear, direct and honest, she said.
For instance, if you’re upset with your boss over your performance review, you’re able to express your opinion in a diplomatic and professional way, she said. Again, this is very different from the other styles. If you’re passive, you might swallow your feelings and become resentful, which can chip away at your self-esteem and boost stress and anxiety, she said. If you’re aggressive, you might curse out your boss and quit. If you’re passive-aggressive, you might call in sick and give your boss the silent treatment, she said.
Why Some People Aren’t Assertive
Why are some people assertive while others aren’t? Many factors may contribute. Stress is one. “The fight-or-flight response is an evolutionary adaptation that pulls us toward aggression or avoidance, and away from calm, relaxed assertiveness,” Paterson said.
A person’s belief system also plays a role. According to Paterson, these assertive-sabotaging stances include: “Being nice means going along with others” or “It doesn’t matter if I’m assertive, no one will pay attention anyway” or “He’ll leave me!” That’s why it’s so important to become aware of these beliefs. “[This way you] can examine them clearly and rationally and decide what to do,” he said.
People with low self-esteem may feel inadequate and have a hard time finding their voice, Marter said. Others might fear conflict, losing a relationship, criticism or rejection, she said.
If you’re a woman, you might’ve been raised to set aside your needs and opinions and support and agree with others, Paterson said. If you’re a man, you might’ve been raised to react aggressively with a “my way or the highway” view, he said. Or just the opposite, you might want to be completely different. “[These individuals may be] fearful of provoking aggression when they are present in relationships, or of being ‘a jerk like my father was.’”
How to Be Assertive
Assertiveness is a skill that takes practice. It may always be easier for you to swallow your feelings, scream at someone or give them the silent treatment. But assertiveness is a better strategy. It works because it respects you and others.
As Paterson writes in The Assertiveness Workbook:
Through assertiveness we develop contact with ourselves and with others. We become real human beings with real ideas, real differences…and real flaws. And we admit all of these things. We don’t try to become someone else’s mirror. We don’t try to suppress someone else’s uniqueness. We don’t try to pretend that we’re perfect. We become ourselves. We allow ourselves to be there.
These are some ideas to get you started.
1. Start small. You wouldn’t try to scale a mountain before reading a manual, practicing on a rock wall and then moving on to bigger peaks. Going in unprepared just sets you up for failure. Paterson suggested trying to be assertive in mildly tense situations, such as requesting to be seated at a different spot at a restaurant. Then gently work up to tougher situations such as talking to your spouse about infidelity issues, he said.
2. Learn to say no. People worry that saying no is selfish. It’s not. Rather, setting healthy limits is important to having healthy relationships. Here are 10 ways to build and preserve better boundaries, along with 21 tips to squelch being a people-pleaser.
3. Let go of guilt. Being assertive can be tough — especially if you’ve been passive or a people pleaser most of your life. The first few times it can feel unnerving. But remember that being assertive is vital to your well-being. “Assertive behavior that involves advocating for oneself in a way that is respectful of others is not wrong — it is healthy self-care,” Marter said.
Sometimes, you might be unwittingly perpetuating your guilty feelings with negative thoughts or worries. “Replace negative thoughts — such as ‘I am a bad person for not loaning my friend money’ — with a positive mantra [such as] ‘I deserve to have financial stability and not put myself in jeopardy,’” she said.
Deep breathing also helps ease your worries and anxiety. “Breathe in what you need — peace, strength, serenity — and breathe out feelings of guilt, anxiety or shame.”
And if you still feel uncomfortable, put yourself in a compassionate parent or best friend’s shoes. “Sometimes it is easier to think about speaking up for somebody else who we love than it is for ourselves,” Marter said.
4. Express your needs and feelings. Don’t assume that someone will automatically know what you need. You have to tell them. Again, be specific, clear, honest and respectful, Marter said.
Take the example of ordering food at a restaurant, she said. You’d never just order a “sandwich.” Instead you’d request a “tuna on rye with slices of cheddar cheese and tomatoes.” If you’re worried of upsetting someone, use “I” statements, which usually make people less defensive.
According to Marter, instead of saying, “You have no clue what my life is like, and you are a selfish ass,” you might say, “I am exhausted and I need more help with the kids.” What also helps is tempering your anger and speaking from a place of hurt, she said, such as: “I feel so lonely and need you to spend time with me.”
“Focus on the real issue, not the minutiae,” she said. In other words, “are you really mad that the toilet seat was left up or that you were up with the baby five times the night before?” If it’s the baby — and it likely is — be clear and specific: “I am upset that I was up with the baby five times last night and need for you to get up at least twice a night.”
5. Check out resources on assertiveness. In addition to Paterson’s The Assertiveness Workbook, Marter recommended Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships (9th Edition) by Robert E. Alberti and Michael L. Emmons and Assertiveness: How to Stand Up for Yourself and Still Win the Respect of Others by Judy Murphy. Paterson also suggested taking a course on effective communication.