Assertiveness is about us being able to stand up for our own rights, or those of other people, in a calm and collected way without being aggressive or passive by just saying “yes” when we really don’t mean it. So, assertiveness means getting our point across without being angry, offensive or upsetting the other person. Assertiveness is always respectful to others and ourselves, it allows us to act in our own best interests, to stand up for ourselves without anxiety and to express our honest feelings or personal rights comfortably without denying the rights of others.
We all react aggressively or passively at times and this mostly comes from a lack of self-confidence.
When we react passively, for example, saying “yes” when we want to say “no”, or taking on just one more piece of work, we have a strong need to be liked by others. We are people pleasers and do not, at that point, believe we are equal to the others. We fail to say what we need and want and allow others to take decisions for us and lead us.
Then if we react aggressively we are not taking into account the wants and needs of others. We will not show praise or appreciation of others and often we put others down. Our aggressive response encourages the other person to respond in a non-assertive way, either aggressively or passively. Aggression is not just anger, but can also be the use of humour inappropriately, rushing someone to make a decision, telling someone what to do or simply cutting them out of the discussion. Plain aggression can be really frightening to the person on the receiving end of it.
So why aren’t we assertive?
It’s down to our own individual belief systems and self-esteem. Thoughts like “Being nice means going along with others “or “She’ll leave me if I speak up!” keeps us passive. The fear of conflict or feeling inadequate also keeps us quiet and for some the fight or flight reaction is activated and we get stuck in anxiety based flight from speaking out. We could also have the beliefs that “the only way I get heard is to be intimidating” or “do it my way and I know it’ll work out” that lead to dominance and aggression.
Here are some things that may let us know we aren’t assertive enough –
- We have to explain ourselves a lot or we constantly find ourselves repeating what we have said to be heard and we over explain ourselves. On the days we can say “no” we have to explain why, who and how instead of simply refusing or declining something.
- We say “yes” a lot. Therefore, we are the one at work they will give the time consuming or new project to, not because we are good at it or the best person for it, but because everyone knows that no matter what, we will not refuse. We will also put in the extra hours or the take longest journey to get the job done. We may also moan and complain about this to a few trusted people or just stew on it ourselves.
- When we can’t express our true feelings or opinions because we fear the consequences of disagreeing with others. Our fears are much bigger than they need to be e.g.”if I don’t go shopping with her, she’ll never speak to me again”.
- We often hate taking risks or stepping outside of our comfort zone., The fear of getting it wrong or other’s opinions of us make us stay in an often uncomfortable place or in a job that we can do so much better than. But, we know what will happen and we don’t have to raise our heads above the parapet.
- We are anxious or even fearful about dealing with people in authority and try our best to never spend time with managers etc.
- If we go into somewhere like a meeting or home, braced and ready for a fight, with all our defences up, we are getting ready to be aggressive not assertive
- When we have an idea someone is out to get us we start to plot our revenge, or their downfall, and talk about them behind their backs this is us being passive-aggressive not assertive.
We can see assertiveness depending on self-esteem and our belief systems, one of the first things to do is to look at those. Write a list of your beliefs about yourself, others and the world e.g. I am terrible at public speaking, everyone else is very good at it and it’s the only way I’ll get on in life – so I won’t bother! Check out how unreasonable your beliefs are, how global they are and what you can do about them.
Then we can work out the situations where we do not stand up for our self. We will be able to see patterns – the kind of people, places, age, authority, work etc.
Is it harder for us to give compliments or criticism, or are both difficult? What do we fear might happen in these situations if we were assertive and compare this with our beliefs and the patterns we have seen.
Then we can start in a small way, asked to be seated somewhere else in a restaurant and work up to bigger things like relationship issues, carefully noting how it felt to be assertive.
Learn to say “no” and set up some boundaries that we will not cross as this is important. Then say “no”. This is not selfish – it is necessary. We also do not have to explain our refusal unless someone asks us to and even then we can decide not to.
We need to go back to those beliefs again, and look at what we really need and want. We should never assume that others will know what we really need, so we need to find a way to express them in a clear, honest and assertive way. If people don’t hear us say them, we need to be repeat them “can I just take you back to…” often works. We need to remember to use the “I” expression in our communication when we are assertive, “I get very upset when you are late for lunch as I feel like we won’t have the time together we both wanted.”
The process of becoming assertive will take time; after all we have been acting either passively or aggressively for some time, so we have to be gentle and forgiving with ourselves. If we don’t get it right this time we can always try again next time.
The Recovery College has some great assertiveness courses: https://www.nottinghamshirehealthcare.nhs.uk/nrc-our-courses
However from time to time we are too stuck in our belief systems to make that change alone and we need counselling to deal with our anger or low-self-esteem. The counselling directory has many counsellors listed you can use.
Tel: 07769 152 951