How do you respond to other people? Do you know the difference between assertion and aggression? Is it ever appropriate to be aggressive or submissive? Which style do you favor?

While growing up, we learn three styles for meeting our needs: assertion, submission, and aggression. Each style is necessary for dealing with the variety of situations we experience. Problems emerge, however, when we are submissive or aggressive in situations that call for assertion.

When inappropriately submissive, we deny our own needs and rely on the good will of others or their need to control to meet these needs.

When we are in the submissive mode, it is difficult to say “no” when something does not suit us.

When inappropriately aggressive, we deny the needs of others and may abuse the very people who can meet our needs for caring and affection.

When we are in the aggressive mode, it is difficult to stay calm and simply say, “I am angry” if someone invades our space. We will, more likely, fly into a rage to express our displeasure.

Three Response Styles

Submissive behavior may be necessary or advisable when it is physically dangerous or socially inappropriate to express oneself more directly. Submissiveness is a problem, however, if it is our usual way of responding to others. Submissive behavior seeks to avoid conflict, risky situations, and confusion. Our communication is emotionally dishonest when we do not directly express our thoughts, feelings, and desires. We may withhold entirely or express ourselves indirectly. We may say “yes” to others when we want to say “no.”

Submissiveness as a lifestyle revolves around the belief that our rights to personal space or to engage in efforts to meet our personal needs are subject to the approval of others. When we are prevented from getting what we require, we may try to meet our needs in a passive-aggressive manner, or by withholding, guilt, manipulation, or sneakiness.

When we are submissive, we may blame ourselves for this perceived denial of rights and attempt to calm the situation with apologies or by talking around the point. We may agree to do things we really do not want to do. Allowing violations of boundaries, denial of rights, and exploitation, coupled with an ignorance of our own needs, are all part of a pattern of avoiding conflict and gaining the approval of others. “You” statements, which proclaim innocence and blame others, and assumptions that others should meet our needs, avoid personal vulnerability and responsibility. A reduced sense of “being alive,” unsatisfactory relationships, low self-esteem, martyrdom, negativity, disappointment, hurt, not getting what we want, and periodic outbursts of rage are characteristic consequences of submissiveness.

Aggressiveness may be necessary when we have to defend ourselves against clear threats to life or property, but can be a problem if it is our usual style of response to others. Aggressive individuals seek to dominate, regardless of the cost. We are aggressive when we express ourselves at the expense of the rights and feelings of others. Aggressive action relies on beliefs that we have to fight for the right to our personal space or need satisfaction and the only way to gain either is by physical or emotional domination. We direct the resulting hostility at others, especially anyone who may be standing in our way.

When we are aggressive, we may blame or abuse others and violate their boundaries to get what we want. When we are aggressive, we lack empathy. We are over-reactive and often mean-spirited. “You” statements blur our fears of domination, dependence, and vulnerability. We protect ourselves by controlling others verbally, by raging, by humiliating others, using put-downs, sarcasm, or the threat or reality of physical or sexual violence. Avoidance of responsibility, alienated and strained relationships, negativity, conflict, anxiety, and low self-esteem are also characteristic of the aggressive style.

Assertiveness conveys our internal experience to others in direct ways that can be clearly heard. It relies on our belief in our right to choose to have and to express our own thoughts, feelings, and desires. Assertiveness reflects our skill, ingenuity, and energy to protect our personal space and sense of identity against the intrusions of others, and to manage our environment for the purpose of meeting our own needs. Angry outbursts, the abuse of power, and the domination of others are not assertive actions. Assertive acts involve maintaining our integrity and our respect for others. Assertion requires learning these skills and dispositions. Assertive people:

  • Express themselves in an emotionally honest way, directly revealing ownership of their feelings and needs when deemed appropriate through the use of first person statements (“I” statements);
  • Are clear about their detachment from others, including the calm use of “no” in refusals;
  • Do not compromise their own dignity or integrity or that of others;
  • Take the feelings and rights of others into account and let them know they have been heard;
  • Are able to deal with compliments or criticisms as pleasing or useful information;
  • Are open to feedback and learning opportunities;
  • Accept the reality of their vulnerability, the need to maintain their boundaries, and to know themselves;
  • Assume and accept that people have different ways of satisfying their needs;
  • Understand that differences and conflict between people are inevitable, and that compromise is negotiable; and
  • Develop listening, problem-solving, and mediation skills so that they can meet their needs without resorting to manipulation, domination, or denying the needs of others.

The consequence of assertive acts is the sense of being “in charge” of one’s own life, a heightened self-esteem, reduced anxiety, and more fulfilling relationships, regardless of whether or not we get what we want all the time. No one is always assertive, nor would that be appropriate. The question is whether we choose to be assertive when it is appropriate to be so.

This article was adapted from Growing Ourselves Up: A Guide to Recovery and Self-Esteem, with permission of the author, Stanley J. Gross, Ed.D.