April 17, 2017
By Lisa Linardatos, PhD, Psychologist
Good relationships undoubtedly have a positive impact on our mental and physical health (1). Yet we face many challenges in relationships, including how to balance our own needs and preferences with those of others. In other words, how do we accommodate and compromise with our friends, partners, family members, coworkers, etc. without putting aside our own needs? And how do we take care of our own needs without being a jerk to others? One extremely useful tool that will help us cultivate respectful and mutually fulfilling relationships is assertiveness! Assertiveness will help you respect yourself, respect others, and have better relationships!
Assertiveness starts from the basic premise that you are a person worthy of respect, and you have the right to a good life. If you have trouble being assertive, it may be a sign that you have low self-esteem, lack self-compassion, or struggle with social anxiety. For tips on improving your feelings of self-worth, check out my blog posts on the self-critical voice and my colleague Andrea’s blog post on Why Self-Compassion?
Assertiveness is a communication style that respects our own needs and preferences and balances them with the needs and preferences of others. It’s expressing our thoughts and feelings in a direct and respectful manner. It is not just about the words we use, but our tone and body language also help us communicate in an assertive manner. If we’re not being assertive, we’re likely communicating in a non-assertive fashion (2) such as:
1. Assertiveness is part of healthy self-esteem.
Research shows that self-esteem is correlated with assertiveness (3), and assertiveness training improves self-esteem (4). This makes sense because when being assertive, we are sticking up for ourselves, giving our needs and desires a voice. Just like if we were to stick up for a friend, by sticking up for ourselves we show our own self that we’re worthy and valued. So “be your own friend” and make your voice heard! Even if it doesn’t “work”, in the sense that you don’t get what you want, you’ll likely feel better knowing that you stuck up for yourself.
2. Assertiveness is good for our psychological well-being.
If we are often putting our needs and preferences second, accommodating others first, and not openly expressing our thoughts and feelings, we may end up feeling anxious about relationships, we may feel depressed and disconnected from others, and we may get resentful. Not fun!
3. Assertiveness is good for our relationships
Authenticity and feeling understood are key ingredients to strong connections and fulfilling relationships (5), and assertiveness gives us an effective way for our authentic selves to be heard and understood. If we are not assertive and don’t voice our needs and opinions, people close to us may feel like they really don’t know us, and they may wonder and worry about whether our words and actions represent our true interests and needs. If we’re assertive people are more likely to feel like they can trust us to take care of our own needs vs. having to guess what we want. If we’re aggressive, on the other hand, people will lose respect for us and we may eventually lose friends and develop low self-esteem.
1. Unhelpful Beliefs about Assertiveness
Myth: Assertiveness is the same thing as aggression.
We may falsely believe that assertiveness is basically the same thing as aggression. If we’re not used to being assertive, assertiveness may feel like aggression. If this is the case for you, it’s helpful to remember the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness. When we’re being assertive, we’re not only taking care of our own needs, but we’re being respectful of others. When we’re being aggressive, we are focusing solely on our own needs and disrespecting others.
Myth: It’s always more helpful and polite to put others’ preferences first.
We may believe that putting others’ needs and preferences first is the polite and helpful thing to do. We may have learned this belief growing up, from our parents or from other influences. In fact, being assertive can be helpful to others. When we’re assertive, others are more likely to feel like they know and understand us, and can trust us to take care of ourselves and our own boundaries (vs. feeling like they have to guess what we really want).
Myth: An assertive person has to be assertive in every situation.
Assertiveness is a helpful way of communicating in many situations, but there are always exceptions. For example, you’re riding the subway and a stranger begins making aggressive comments toward you. In situations like this, your personal safety is top priority and it would be wise to exit the situation as passively as possible or ask someone for help, rather than confronting the aggressive individual. Or, perhaps you have a boss who is consistently verbally abusive. Ideally you’d be able to quit your job, but in the meantime you might try “picking your battles”, especially if your assertiveness is often met with hostility. Don’t give up too easily on assertiveness though; sometimes it takes many tries before people respond constructively (or at least not destructively) to our assertive behaviour.
Myth: If you’re assertive you will get what you want.
It would be great if being assertive worked every time. Unfortunately, we cannot control other’s behaviour, so even if we are perfectly assertive, we may not get what we want. There are still many benefits to being assertive though even if we don’t get what we want, such as protecting our self-esteem by allowing our needs and preferences to be heard (2). See Assert Yourself! Module 1: What is Assertiveness? for more!
Anxiety exists to protect us, but sometimes it’s overly protective and our anxiety alarm starts going off when it doesn’t need to. In situations where we want to be assertive, our anxiety system may be telling us, “Don’t do it, you’ll make a fool out of yourself; you’ll damage your friendship; something bad will happen”, etc. Anxiety gets us to focus on the worst-case scenario while at the same time underestimating our ability to cope with difficult situations. Fortunately, there are plenty of effective ways to manage anxiety. Check out my blog post on anxiety for some tips. And try this simple yet helpful anxiety-reducing breathing hack.
3. Skills deficit
Assertiveness is a skill and like any other skill it takes practice. I’ve listed some assertiveness tips below. In addition, try to find an assertive role model in your social network, and ask them what their approach to assertiveness is. You might even take a class on communication, debating, or even improv! Try practicing out loud at home alone, or with a friend or a therapist. Remember to pay attention to your tone and posture.
4. Cultural and Generational Influences
Western society tends to be more individualistic, meaning people are more likely to be motivated by their own needs and preferences, and prioritize them over the needs and preferences of the group. Other cultures value interdependence and relatedness more than individualism, and tend to view themselves as part of a whole, and are more motivated by norms imposed by the group and maintaining harmony (6). If you are living in a culture that values collectivism over individualism, you may want to weigh the pros and cons of living by these cultural values vs. being assertive. Similarly, different generations, often older, may have been taught to defer to authority more, and women are more likely to have been taught that it is aggressive for a woman to firmly and directly state her needs and opinions.
See Assert Yourself! Module 4: How To Behave More Assertively for more! Assertiveness is the “super-food” of communication. It helps us feel more authentic, it aids our self-esteem, it allows us to connect more deeply with others, and it helps others know our boundaries, among other things. So if you’re struggling with assertiveness, I hope you’re able to give some of these tips a try and experience how assertiveness can help you. *Please note that much of this info is taken from the Assert Yourself! modules from the Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI) website. Thanks CCI for your awesome resources!
1) Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., & Thisted, R. A. (2010). Perceived social isolation makes me sad: Five-year cross-lagged analyses of loneliness and depressive symptomatology in the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study. Psychology and Aging, 25, 453– 463.
2) Assert Yourself! Module 1: What is Assertiveness? Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI). http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/Assertmodule%201.pdf
3) Sarkova, M., Bacikova‐Sleskova, M., Orosova, O., Madarasova Geckova, A., Katreniakova, Z., Klein, D., … & Dijk, J. P. (2013). Associations between assertiveness, psychological well‐being, and self‐esteem in adolescents. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(1), 147-154.
4) Stake, J. E., DeVille, C. J., & Pennell, C. L. (1983). The effects of assertive training on the performance self-esteem of adolescent girls. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 12(5), 435-442.
5) Reis, H. T., & Shaver, P. (1988). Intimacy as an interpersonal process. In S. Duck (Ed.), Handbook of personal relationships (pp. 367- 389). Chichester, England: Wiley.
6) Triandis, H. C. (1995). Individualism & collectivism. Westview press.
7) Assert Yourself! Module 4: How To Behave More Assertively. Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI). http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/Assertmodule%204.pdf