In my counseling practice, I frequently include assertiveness training, where I work with my client to help them become more assertive in their everyday lives. I find that many of the interpersonal difficulties we experience can be improved when we express our feelings in a kind, but clear manner.
First, let’s look at the distinction between assertive, non-assertive, and aggressive behaviors. Non-assertive behavior is when we honor the other person’s rights, but we don’t honor our own. We don’t speak up for ourselves when we should. We treat other people well, but don’t treat ourselves very well.
Many times, children are taught to be non-assertive. They may be punished when they try to express their needs, even when they do so respectfully. This can occur directly, where the parent chastises the child, or it can occur indirectly, where the parent has a harsh temper, and intimates the child. When that child grows up, she will often feel extreme anxiety at the thought of standing up for herself.
Aggressive behavior is the exact opposite of non-aggressive behavior. This occurs when the person stands up for his rights, but does so in a manner that infringes on the rights of the other person. This behavior makes the other person feel defensive, put down, or diminished. Aggression can be expressed by the words spoken, or by facial expressions, body language or tone of voice. Aggressive behavior can also be learned in childhood.
Assertive behavior is in the mid-point between non-assertive and aggressive behaviors. When you are assertive, you stand up for your rights, but do so in a manner that also honors the rights of the other person. You say how you feel, but express it in a way that respects the other person. You speak your truth in a kind, but serious manner.
It’s also important to remember that assertiveness is not a one-time conversation. You must be persistently assertive to make any impact on the relationship. This means that, to make any real difference, you speak up almost every time the other person infringes on your rights.
Sometimes my clients argue that any efforts to be assertive are useless because the other person won’t change. They say that the other person will just argue back, but that they will never listen. They explain their years of non-assertiveness by this feeling of hopelessness.
I then point out that there are two reasons to be assertive. The first, and most obvious, is to try to change the
situation or the relationship. Even if the other person is capable of change, they won’t if they don’t know how you feel. I have seen many relationships improved when one person learned to express her feelings in a respectful, but assertive manner. When the other person realized that they meant what they said, they made the eff
ort to change.
The second reason to be assertive has nothing to do with the other person at all. Even when the other party makes no changes, you benefit from being assertive. The change occurs within you. When you are appropriately assertive, you are taking care of yourself. You are saying to yourself, “I deserve to be protected and respected. I have as many rights as the other person.” You feel better about yourself.
Consider this example. A little boy is playing on the playground minding his own business. Another little boy comes up to him and pushes him down for no reason. The first little boy cries and walks away. That boy has experienced two injuries. The first is the physical pain of being pushed down. The second is the emotional pain of not standing up for himself. He feels diminished and inadequate. The emotional pain far outweighs the physical pain.
If the offended boy had stood up for himself in any way, he would have avoided the emotional pain of non-assertiveness. Whether he pushed back, verbally confronted the boy or told an adult, the emotional outcome would have been better. He would have experienced the physical pain of the push, but he would have felt better about himself.
If you are in a situation where you feel the need to be assertive, consider this. If someone you love were in the same situation, would you hope that they would be assertive? If so, then you should as well. Make sure that your assertive response respects the other person’s rights as well as your own. It may help to write down what you want to say to the other person. You can even state your feelings in a letter, if that is easier for you. Being appropriately assertive can provide a major step toward a more positive self-esteem.