We see instances of nonassertive behavior around us everyday. Most people who lack an assertive style are simply those who want to keep the peace. For the most part, they want goodness and cooperation between people. However, they often pay a high price for this in terms of functioning effectively in the world.
There are many negative consequences associated with the nonassertive style. For example, those who are not assertive allow their feelings and boundaries to be violated by others. They believe that they do not have the right to their own feelings, beliefs or opinions – and even if they do, they have difficulty in expressing them in a self-affirming way. They may feel that asserting their thoughts will lead to rejection or even being attacked. They frequently feel that it is better to withhold their ideas rather than cause a conflict. Nonassertive people may feel guilty when they have to say “No.” They often allow others to make decisions for them and may assume that others will care for their needs. They may place the needs of others above their own. Nonassertive people are easily victimized by others.
The consequences for choosing to be nonassertive are costly. People feel hurt and mistreated when their needs are not met – yet those who are nonassertive do little to meet these needs themselves. They may store up negative feelings and then harbor anger. Their sense of efficacy in the world is diminished, and then they complain about how unfair the world is to them. This approach toward the world may lead to depression, poor self-esteem, anxiety, isolation, and anger. There are better alternatives.
Learning to be more assertive involves examining several dimensions of your life –
Self-Esteem: How you define yourself, positively or negatively, depends on the messages you’ve heard from others throughout your life. We internalize the things we’ve heard about ourselves from other people, and this becomes the basis of our self-esteem, which can be either mostly positive or mostly negative. If we see ourselves in a negative light, we may feel that we are not worthy of speaking up for what we want – and this can lead to nonassertion as a lifestyle. People who work on their assertiveness skills have to look deeply within to assess their self-esteem and see what they can do to create a more positive definition of themselves. They find things about themselves that they like. They might practice saying affirmations to themselves (affirmations are sayings, such as “I like myself more and more each day”) until they become a reality and replace the old negative messages they may have heard during their lives. They may have conversations with people in which they talk about their positive qualities and maintain a positive tone throughout the conversation.
Turning an old legacy of negativity into a present sense of positive feelings takes some work, persistence, and motivation, but the rewards are enormous. One day you realize that you really do like yourself, you like who you are, and you are willing to let the world know this. (This does not imply that you are working toward conceit or a superior, condescending attitude – you are simply working to repair old negative messages that have held you back in the past. You are working toward balance.) Assertion requires positive self-esteem. Once you feel good about yourself, you can then go out into the world with a healthy sense of pride and assertively deal with the many experiences and people who come your way.
Communication patterns: Good communication requires the ability to listen to others and to express your thoughts and feelings while you maintain respect for other people. It involves the ability to express your ideas clearly and effectively. Assertion does not involve blaming the other person or putting them down. There is no room for sarcasm when communicating assertively. Assertive speaking often involves the use of “I” statements – that is, you talk about how you feel about something without attacking the other person (for example, you might say, “I feel uncomfortable when you talk about Mary that way,” but you would not say, “You make me feel uncomfortable when you gossip about Mary”). Assertiveness does not aim to put the other person into a defensive stance, but rather opens communication patterns between people. When speaking assertively, your voice is well modulated and warm and produced at normal volume. Your flow of words is even and conversational. Your voice is relaxed – for example, you might say, “This steak is well done and I asked for medium rare,” in the same tone that you might use to comment on how blue the sky seems today. And, of course, your nonverbal cues should be consistent with your verbal communication. For example, the statement, “I’m not angry,” would not be uttered through gritted teeth and flared nostrils.
Relaxation: Many nonassertive people complain that they fall apart emotionally when they get into confrontations or other stressful situations. They feel as if their emotions are out of control – tense posture, no eye contact, quavering voice, disjointed thoughts. It is helpful to realize that stress in social encounters is a learned response. You learn to be tense in certain situations. Similarly, you can learn, through practice, to be relaxed in these situations so that your predominant response becomes relaxation rather than stress. There are several techniques for learning to relax, such as deep breathing, meditation, deep muscle relaxation, and desensitization. Many therapists are able to teach these simple, but effective, methods as part of psychotherapy.
Authenticity: Learning to become assertive is not just an exercise in discovering appropriate responses to uncomfortable social situations. Rather, it mirrors a personal process of self-discovery that is often aided by working with a therapist. The goal is to reach your authentic self, your integrity, or your genuine core. This process involves examining your life objectively, understanding what the various forces and experiences are that made you who you are today. It involves self-acceptance. It may involve forgiving those who have been unfair to you – or not. At some point in the process of self-discovery, you acknowledge the imperfections within yourself and other people, and you accept them. You begin to know who you are and what you like and dislike. And, in a comfortable and undemanding way, you want to share all of this with the world.
When you can comfortably share your authentic self with the world around you, with integrity and respect for the rights and wholeness of other people, you are truly asserting yourself.
Next time I’ll post some Everyday Assertiveness Tips.