Assertiveness is the key to increased confidence, lower anxiety, and self-esteem.

As a kid, whenever we went out to eat as a family I felt embarrassed by my dad.

Inevitably, as our hostess or waiter was showing us to our table, my dad would point across the room and ask: “Actually, could we sit at that table over there?”

I remember thinking to myself, This is embarrassing… Why can’t he just sit where they’re taking us? Or, That must be so annoying for our poor waiter. Or, Why’s he always so picky—it doesn’t really matter where we sit.

Fast forward 20 or so years. I still go out to eat with my dad sometimes, and he still requests a better table each time.

But I have a much different perspective on things now.

I don’t feel embarrassed at all anymore. In fact, I feel a little proud of him. I’ve realized that my dad’s a great example of how to live out one of the most underrated and misunderstood aspects of mental health and wellbeing: Assertiveness.

This article is a brief guide to the concept of assertiveness. Here’s what we’ll cover:


Assertiveness and The 4 Communication Styles

assertiveness communication styles Nick Wignall

“The only healthy communication style is assertive communication.” — Jim Rohn

As we’ll talk about later, assertiveness is more than a way of communicating. But assertive communication is a good place to begin to understand the more general concept.

There are 4 styles or types of communication:

Whenever we communicate with people—whether we know it or not—we’re using one or more of these styles. Let’s briefly go through each and describe what it looks like and where it comes from.

1 | Passive Communication

The passive style of communicating is all about keeping our head down and avoiding conflict. It often takes the form of “going with the flow,” consistently giving into other people’s requests and demands, and avoiding expressing our own desires and preferences:

Notice that passive communication doesn’t involve not communicating or saying nothing. Instead, it usually takes the form of going along with whatever someone else suggests.

Also, while the passive style of communication may appear somewhat passive in terms of what we say, it’s often anything but passive in terms of what we do.

People with a passive style of communication often look extremely busy and active because they’re constantly rushing around and working hard to take care of everyone else’s requests of them.

2 | Aggressive Communication

The aggressive style of communicating is the reverse of the passive style. Rather than doing whatever is asked of us by others, when we use the aggressive style we try to force others to do what we want, even if it’s at the expense of their own wishes.

In the passive style we give up an unreasonable amount of control over our own lives, but in the aggressive style we try to take an unreasonable amount of control over other people’s lives:

A consistently aggressive style of communicating is almost always a response to feeling afraid or threatened on a deep level. Just like many playground bullies act the way they do in order to feel powerful and compensate for the bullying and fear they experience at home, most adults who use an aggressive communication style are acting out of a sense fear and helplessness.

And while aggressive communication can feel empowering in the short term, the long-term results are never satisfying and often make those feelings of insecurity worse (if for no other reason than that they tend to alienate themselves from other people over time).

3 | Passive-Aggressive Communication

Passive-aggressive communication is a combination of the passive and aggressive styles. It’s usually an attempt to get our way or express our frustrations and dissatisfactions while simultaneously avoiding responsibility for the consequences.

Passive-aggressive communication often “works well” in the short term, but almost always leads to poor results in the long run: The people around us eventually become so frustrated and upset with us that it can cause major relationship strife and loss.

And because people who regularly use the passive-aggressive style understand that they’re not being totally honest in the way they relate with people, chronic guilt can build up and become crippling.

4 | Assertive Communication

Assertive communication means that we clearly and respectfully ask for what we want and say no to what we don’t want.

Many people mistake the directness of assertive communication for aggressive communication. Usually, because they were trained early on in life to be overly accommodating or deferential.

These people hear the term assertiveness or imagine themselves being assertive, and it feels pushy, rude, or somehow disrespectful. This is because they don’t have much experience with the assertive middle ground between passive and aggressive.

Assertiveness is almost always the most effective way of interacting with people because it’s A) an honest expression of how you feel and what’s important to you, but also B) respectful of others.

In other words, assertive communication means respecting yourself and other people in the way you communicate.


Common Obstacles to Being More Assertive

assertiveness obstacles Nick Wignall

“Yet there’s no one to beat you | No one t’ defeat you | ’Cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad” — Bob Dylan

Of course, communicating assertively isn’t easy for most of us, at least not all the time and in every situation.

Most of us have a hard time communicating assertively because—in one way or another—we’re afraid.

In each case, we tend to avoid assertive communication because we’re afraid of how we or others might feel as a result.

And while employing one of these three less optimal styles may help us avoid conflict or negative feelings in the short-term, they almost always lead to negative results in the long-term:

On the other hand, there’s often temporary discomfort and blowback when we act or speak assertively:

The initial discomfort of assertiveness can be even stronger when the people in our life aren’t used to us acting this way. Others may say or imply that we’re selfish by not going along with their requests. Or our attempts at being more direct and respectful may be met with initial doubts or mistrust.

But ultimately, the habit of communicating assertively—of clearly and respectfully expressing our wishes and feelings—leads to the best outcomes in the long-run.


The Benefits of Learning to Be More Assertive

assertiveness benefits Nick Wignall

“The conquest of anxiety depends on the occurrence of overt acts of assertion.” — Joseph Wolpe

The benefits of becoming more assertive are too many to list entirely.

But here are a few of the most common and compelling reasons to work on becoming more assertive:


Assertiveness Is About More Than Communication

assertiveness and values Nick Wignall

“To know oneself, one should assert oneself.” — Albert Camus

While assertive communication is the most common form of assertiveness, it’s important to know that assertiveness is bigger than a style of communication and speech.

Ultimately, assertiveness is about values—it means that we live our lives according to our values, not someone else’s.

It’s about respecting ourselves enough to be genuinely okay with who we are and to live our lives accordingly. And while this may take the form of speech and communication, it’s about how we act more generally.


Small Ways to Practice Being More Assertive

assertiveness practice Nick Wignall

“It is a mistake to look at someone who is self assertive and say, “It’s easy for her, she has good self-esteem.” One of the ways you build self-esteem is by being self-assertive when it is not easy to do so. There are always times when self-assertiveness requires courage, no matter how high your self-esteem.” — Nathaniel Branden

Assertiveness is a skill that needs to be built and developed over time. If you’ve read this far, hopefully you have a good understanding of what assertiveness is and why it’s important. But putting it into practice is an entirely different thing.

Becoming more assertive takes sustained effort and commitment. So start small. Work on being more assertive in lower stakes situations. As you improve and it becomes more natural, slowly work up to assertiveness in bigger and higher stakes situations.

Here are a handful of ideas for getting started practicing assertiveness in small ways:

Remember: As you practice being more assertive—even in small ways—it’s going to feel uncomfortable for you as well as the people around you who are used to you being less assertive.

It’s important that you expect this so that at least you’re not caught off guard by it in the moment.

One Final Tip for Becoming More Assertive

assertiveness one more thing Nick Wignall

“I encourage people to remember that “no” is a complete sentence.” — Gavin de Becker

Here’s one final tip as you work toward becoming more assertive. If you can remember this, you’ll be far less likely to fall off the assertiveness wagon and back into old habits.

Being guilt tripped and feeling guilty is not the same thing as being guilty.

Many of us—especially those of us with a more passive style—have a hard time being assertive because we worry about how guilty we’ll feel as a result of not going along with what other people want.

This is a classic trap that many people who struggle to be assertive fall into—they have a hard time distinguishing true guilt from fake guilt.

Imagine a pushy family member giving you a hard time about the decision not to host Christmas again this year. Imagine how you might feel as they describe how no one else will do it and how important it is to keep the family together and how much they all depend on you to do this, and how hurt they would be if you “let them down.”

This is guilt tripping. And your pushy family member is doing it because they know on some level that the discomfort you feel as a result may be so strong that you’ll end up hosting Christmas just to avoid having to feel the fake guilt they’ve so generously heaped upon you.

The key is to recognize that this guilt is not legitimate.

Guilt is the emotion we experience when we’ve done something wrong, not when someone else says (or implies) that we’ve done something wrong.

Try to get better at recognizing these two versions of guilt. When you find yourself feeling guilty, ask yourself, Have I actually done something wrong? Then, practice tolerating the discomfort of that fake guilt and building up a resilience to it.


Resources

assertiveness workbook

“Assertiveness is not a strategy for getting our own way. Instead, it recognizes that you are in charge of your own behavior and that you decide what you will and will not do.” — Randy J. Paterson

By far the best resources I’ve ever come across for learning about assertiveness and working to become more assertive is The Assertiveness Workbook by Randy J. Paterson.

Nothing else comes close.


Summary and Key Points

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Comments

I wonder if what I did was being assertive or bullying. I was feeling depressed and not at all well and very unhappy. I called my daughter and asked her if I could come over to her house. She said okay. It started to rain, sometimes hard and asked if I could come over tomorrow. I felt I could hang on to tomorrow but I wanted to come over today. She was very annoyed and said that I don’t help myself and I said something to counter that and she said she would come over. She works hard and coming home from work too. I felt guilty and called her and told her I would come over tomorrow. She said no she was practically at my home. So I said ok. I had asked her in the beginning if I could come over each day of the weekend. That was not definitive. She said when she was taking me home that she would pick me up tomorrow. I said that ok I’ll be fine or something like that. She said no my kids will be there so I said ok.

Everything I’ve just read and I read all of it is to me absolutely spot on 👍 I have always struggled in life with being assertive and from reading this believe I am a passive assertive person and who very often feels bad or guilty for saying no or having to change plans on decisions I’ve made far to quick instead of thinking first based on ongoing poor mental health problems most of which have resulted from past traumatic experiences and which then result in a break down in communicating to the point where I don’t communicate at all not even with my own gp anymore maybe a good idea that I start to use these tips

Thanks, Jane! Yes, I’d definitely encourage you to try some of this, especially a when it comes to getting the medical attention you need. Good luck!

Thank you! This was the most genuine article I have read on assertiveness. I also clicked the link and read the article about worry.
And I will be ordering that workbook on assertiveness to work through immediately. It’s amazing how we get to a point in life that we just can’t be passive anymore… it is like the mask is suffocating me, the words I long to say to others come tumbling out later when I am on my own… but at least they are starting to come out, and hopefully in time, I can start to be more assertive. Thanks for also including the part about guilt tripping. I do that to myself a lot (as well as those close to me) and actually, if I think very closely to my “assertive” moment, I do not have anything to apologize for, but somehow my body is programmed to say I am guilty. Happy that I am able to re-read this article anytime I want and also happy to see in your article that discomfort happens but it is going to get better.

Melanie,

Comments like this are a real gift to a writer 🙂 So glad to hear that it’s been both helpful and relatable. That’s what I strive for in my writing, so it’s great to hear that it’s coming across that way.

Best of luck in your assertiveness journey!

cheers,
–Nick

Everything in your article sounds great, and I know I should do it, but every time I try to be assertive I get SO much push back from people at work, family of origin, and family of choice, that is way worse than being passive. If I’m passive, I’m miserable, but if I’m assertive, everyone is miserable. It just doesn’t seem worth it. Or the alternative is to find a new job and new family.

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