Research has shown a relationship between non-assertiveness and depression. The studies indicated that people who are generally non-assertive are more likely to get depressed than others who are assertive. Assertiveness has been defined as behavior that enables people to act in their own best interests by expressing their thoughts and feelings directly and honestly.
Lets look at the definitions of non-assertiveness, assertiveness and aggressiveness. When we are non-assertive, we honor the other person’s rights, but don’t honor our own rights. When we’re aggressive, we honor our own rights, while trampling on the other person’s rights. When we’re assertive, we honor our own rights, while also honoring the other person’s rights.
In my counseling, I have seen many people who were experiencing depression that was either caused or worsened by an inability to be assertive. The client had allowed others to treat her badly, and was unable to stand up for herself. Over time, the pain and perceived helplessness of the situation led to clinical depression. Like the old idea of Chinese water torture, the drip, drip, drip of being mistreated, without self-defense took it toll.
There are many reasons that people have difficulty being assertive. We will look at several of them here.
1. There is a fear that the other person will get angry. In most cases, this isn’t a fear of physical violence, but rather, a fear of the anger itself. The non-assertive person may have experienced intense or inappropriate anger from a parental figure during childhood. The child associated danger with the anger. That association is maintained in the adult. Even though the victim will readily admit that they are not afraid of violence from the other person, they experience fear and anxiety, as if violence was a risk.
2. The non-assertive person fears disapproval from the other person. In this case, the focus is on the risk of disappointing the other person. No action is necessary. Just a disappointing look, or an anticipated loss of respect can keep the victim silent.
3. Sometimes the non-assertive person has a fear of “being mean.” This individual fears hurting the other person or inconveniencing them. These are the classic “people pleasers.” They work very hard to be nice, even if it means sacrificing their own needs.
4. The person’s self-esteem may be so low, that he feels he has no right to be assertive. He upholds others rights to defend their needs, but doesn’t feel he has the same rights.
This isn’t a comprehensive list of causes, and you may relate somewhat to them all. Changing from non-assertive behaviors to assertive behaviors can be difficult. It begins with small things. State your opinion in areas where you anticipate less resistance. At first, be assertive with people you feel will be more receptive. Practice the behavior.
You will be uncomfortable at first. You will feel anxiety and may be uncertain about whether you have the right to be assertive in a particular situation. Try this little mind experiment. Imagine a friend or loved one in the exact same situation as you are experiencing. Put them in your shoes. Would they have a right to be assertive if they were in this situation? Would you want them to stand up for themselves? If so, then you should be assertive as well. Practice the behavior you would want your friend to exhibit.
So, what if you are assertive and the other person resists, argues with or ignores your requests? You will have to be “persistently assertive,” meaning that you maintain you position, stating your disagreement calmly but confidently.
Also, don’t be surprised if the other person accuses you of being selfish or mean. When others are accustomed to you being non-assertive, going along, and never disagreeing, they will perceive you as mean or overly negative when you stand your ground. You may just have to push through this hurdle. Over time, they will get used to your assertive moments and actually see it as within your rights.
Learning to be assertive is a gradual process. You begin with the realization that you have the right to be assertive. Then you practice the behavior in less intimidating situations. Gradually, you state your mind in more difficult circumstances. Eventually, you will be able to be assertive without even realizing it.
Question: What other reasons come to mind for non-assertive behaviors? Share them here.