What is assertiveness?

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Assertiveness - Mark Ettensohn, Psy.D. Sacramento Therapist

Much of getting what we want out of life depends on being assertive. Whether we’re applying for a job, asking for a raise, or trying to get our needs met in relationships, being assertive makes a huge difference. But despite having a general sense that assertiveness is important, many people don’t really know what assertive behavior looks like.

People often confuse assertiveness with aggression. This causes some people to miss opportunities to speak up for themselves because they don’t want to come across as mean or selfish. Others pride themselves on their aggressive behavior, mistakenly thinking they are being assertive.

Not too little, not too much

When thinking about assertiveness, it is helpful to remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Like Goldilocks in the story, being assertive is a matter of finding the happy medium between two extremes. In this case, assertiveness lies somewhere between being passive and being aggressive.

Assertive behavior requires balancing your rights with the rights of others. When we talk about ‘rights’ in this context, we are referring to things like the right not to be touched or intimidated, the right to have opinions and to express oneself, and the right to be in relationships that are mutually satisfying.

Passive behavior occurs when we undervalue our own rights and overvalue the rights of someone else. People who are habitually passive treat the rights of others as if they were more important than their own. They doubt the validity of their own thoughts and feelings and they often avoid expressing themselves because they are afraid of hurting someone. Sometimes, they develop a pattern of bottling up their feelings until they eventually explode in a torrent of aggressive behavior that causes people around them to feel confused, hurt, and frustrated.

In contrast, aggressive behavior results from valuing our own rights over the rights of others. People who are habitually aggressive may have a “my way or the highway” attitude in their relationships and dealings with other people. They may use force or intimidation to influence others. Aggressive behavior typically involves yelling, name-calling, using physical force, or using threats. Aggressive people may develop a relationship pattern in which outbursts of aggression are followed by periods of guilt and remorse, during which they behave in a passive manner in order to “make up” for their previous aggression. This period of guilt and passivity is usually only temporary, and soon the aggressive behavior returns.

Learning to recognize assertive behavior in everyday life

To practice recognizing assertive behavior, consider this common scenario: a server gets your order wrong at a restaurant.

passive way of handling this situation might be to remain silent, afraid of making a big deal or making the server feel bad. If you were to behave this way, what rights of your own might get ignored? By staying silent, would you be getting the full benefit of your business agreement with the restaurant? How might you end up feeling as you ate the food you didn’t order, or as you paid the bill for a dinner you didn’t really enjoy? Do you think this would affect your mood during the meal, or maybe even for the rest of the night?

An aggressive way to handle the same situation might be to become outraged, lecture or demean the server, and refuse to pay despite attempts by the management to remedy the situation. What rights of the other person (server and/or manager) might you be undervaluing by acting in this way? Is it really necessary to be so forceful? How do you think the server and the people around you might feel?

An assertive response to being served the wrong food at a restaurant might involve calmly and politely pointing out the error to the server. If other mistakes have occurred, or if the server doesn’t handle the situation in a satisfactory manner, then escalating to speaking with the manager may be appropriate. By remaining civil and refraining from abusing the staff, this assertive response allows you to get your needs met while respecting the rights of others. It’s the happy medium between saying nothing (thus sacrificing your needs) and behaving in a way that is harmful and disruptive to others (thus sacrificing their needs). Like Goldilocks discovered in the house of the three bears, this middle way is “just right.”

Learning to be assertive can be difficult, especially if you’ve fallen into the habit of engaging in cycles of passivity and aggression. Often, people attempting to make changes in their behavior will encounter feelings of discomfort when they try new things. They may also notice that others resist their attempts to change established relationship dynamics. This is perfectly normal and is usually a sign of growth. However, if you are attempting to make changes in your life and would like some help, talking to a therapist can be very beneficial.

Everything you need is already within you.”

– Pablo Valle

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