- Mental Health
Assertiveness: It's All About Respect
Assertiveness is a communication style and a behavioral choice. It’s a skill and a mindset. It’s about respect. Like most skills, it can be learned, and improved with practice; and may feel awkward at first before becoming more natural and familiar. Alternatives to assertiveness are passive, aggressive and passive-aggressive responses.
A passive response allows others to walk all over me and take advantage of me, because I don’t stand up for myself. A person with a passive style of communication and behavior tends to respect others very highly but has little respect for self. A passive person is not able to accept that he or she has a personal right to be treated with respect. A person with a passive response style is often described as a doormat or a mouse.
An aggressive response allows me to walk all over others, because I consider myself to be better than others or more worthy than others. A person with an aggressive response style has a great deal of self respect and very little respect for others. They believe they have a right to be respected, but ignore and disregard the fact that others have the same right. They are the ones who walk all over the ones with a passive response style. The person with an aggressive response is sometimes masking true feelings of low self worth and is acting on the mistaken belief that putting others down makes him feel better or look better to others.
Bear in mind that a person with a passive response style, may allow himself to be walked on to some extent; sometimes for good reason. Others who respond passively are among the more vulnerable segments of our society who legitimately require our protection or our voice - children, elderly, sick, disabled, handicapped, poor, uneducated, etc. Some would exclude the poor and uneducated from this list, and others would include women and minorities. The point being that some people show a persistent pattern of allowing themselves to be victimized. They are fully capable of defending and protecting themselves, but choose not to or fail to do so. Others are natural targets of victimizers because of their vulnerability and their true inability to protect themselves. Few of us are completely helpless to defend ourselves or completely capable of defending ourselves against determined perpetrators. We are both vulnerable and powerful! We are free to make different choices at different times for different reasons.
Assertiveness is the middle ground between passive and aggressive, in which a person respects both self and others. It is the desired response in a civil society that no longer requires a survival response of fright, flight or fight; but one of cooperation and interdependence. Assertiveness is not about winning or getting my own way at another’s expense. Rather, it is a knowing that my rights to express my needs, wants, ideas and feelings are equal to yours.
WARNING: Sadly, there are still homes, neighborhoods and communities where violence is the norm and a survival response is necessary! If asserting my right to be respected will result in a severe beating, a threat on my life, or even ridicule, a passive response may be better in the short run – until I can hightail it the hell out of there to safety! There are long term dangers to a passive response that are beyond the scope of this article, and better addressed in therapy.
Passive aggression involves a person who is passive, allows others to misuse and take advantage of him or her; then gets angry and upset about being misused and taken advantage of. The anger can be explosive and overtly aggressive, or can be expressed in a more sneaky and covert manner. An example of passive aggression would be the person who year after year gladly provides the ham for the family reunion picnic, but this year is struggling financially due to some financial changes. Rather than communicate that they will need help with the ham this year or will not be able to furnish the ham at all this year, they are silent and begin to resent the family for putting such a burden on them. On the day of the picnic, they don’t show up, or they may show up but “forget” the ham. There is no ham for the reunion, and family members are angry and upset with the person.
Thoughts and Beliefs About Assertiveness
As is true with any behavior, there are thoughts and beliefs that support each response style. As mentioned earlier, the beliefs relate to respect for my own and others’ personal rights. Some of the beliefs related to each response style are listed below with suggestions for alternative beliefs that will lead away from a passive, passive aggressive or aggressive response and toward a more assertive response. Examining my beliefs about my behavior can help me understand my behavior. Changing my beliefs will result in behavioral change.
BELIEFS THAT LEAD TO A PASSIVE RESPONSE STYLE:
Being assertive is being selfish, and it’s always bad to be selfish. Many people, especially women, have been socialized to believe that others needs are more important than their own, that meeting one’s own needs is selfish, and that selfish is always bad. They don’t recognize that their needs are also important, that “win-win” solutions are possible, that there doesn’t have to be a “loser”, that there is “healthy selfishness, or that telling another “no” is not only acceptable but often necessary.
I must be passive if I want to be loved. This belief is usually a result of exposure to relationship behaviors or parenting practices that value obedience above personhood. It is a conditional love that teaches that I am only lovable and worthwhile when I am obedient, and that I am unlovable and unworthy when I disobey. There is an underlying assumption that I can be either obedient or disobedient, and doesn’t allow for the possibility that I might have my own thoughts. In order to move toward assertiveness, I may need to learn to tolerate that others may very well become upset or angry with me when I don’t do what they want all the time, and that’s ok. I can handle that. They probably won’t stop loving me, but if they do I can live with that.
It’s impolite to disagree and if others disagree with me, I must be wrong: These beliefs usually relate to another belief that there is only one right way to think about something, and that I must convert others to my way of thinking or change my way of thinking to theirs. The person who speaks first or loudest is allowed to dominate a conversation and others politely nod in agreement. These rules make for dull conversations, lack of imagination, and hinder problem- solving. Some people become very upset with disagreement and will go so far as to leave the room to avoid conflict. This response often indicates a history of physical violence in which the person may have actually been harmed or threatened during a conflict, and confuses disagreement with an argument.
I should always be “nice” and my opinion doesn’t matter: Many people really believe that they always have to be nice and that it is always nice to agree with others, avoid conflict and please others. These beliefs lead to a host of other problems. This is not to suggest that one should be mean instead of nice or that assertiveness can’t also be nice sometimes. The point is that my needs are important to me and my opinions do matter, and if I need to say “no” to you in order to say “yes” to myself, then that’s a choice that is available to me and that I am willing to make when appropriate.
BELIEFS THAT LEAD TO AN AGGRESSIVE RESPONSE STYLE:
I have a right to be angry: Technically, that is correct. We have a right to feel angry. We don’t have a right to act aggressively or violently against another person or property. There is a difference between angry feelings and violent behavior. Even if we are able to express anger appropriately without getting aggressive, it is often not in our best interest to do so. That’s not necessarily fair, but it is a reality, which is sometimes unfair. Sometimes what a person means when they say they have a right to be angry is that they have a right to use their anger to control and intimidate others as a means to get what they want. Or that they have a right to take their anger out on others and expect support in return.
If I am not aggressive, people will think I am weak: This belief confuses physical strength with character strength. The best response to this is the old adage that it “takes more of a man to walk away from a fight.” Indeed, it is more difficult to refrain from aggression than to act on it. A person with this belief attempts to prove his strength in order to maintain a reputation, but is actually demonstrating poor self-control and damaging his reputation.
Men who associate aggression with their “manhood” have a difficult time relinquishing this belief without feeling like they are giving up their manhood. A tough “kid” who grew up on the streets, will also struggle with this belief. His survival has depended on it. As mentioned earlier, assertiveness is the desired response in a civil society. There is nothing civil about a “kid” growing up on the streets, where survival skills are often necessary.
If I’m not aggressive, nothing will get done: This is the “nice guys finish last” mentality. Use of power, control, intimidation, threats and punishment seem to work in the short run to get tasks completed, but relationships suffer in the long run when task completion is valued over relationships. The tasks do get done, but not cheerfully and not without damage to relationships. Assertiveness is an alternative that allows for task completion while maintaining relationships.
Honesty is the best policy: Honesty is generally a good policy. When a person appeals to the honesty policy, however, they are usually doing so to justify aggression. “That was the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard and you’re stupid for saying it,” is not honesty! It is aggression. It is not intended to help but to harm. Even if it was intended to help; clearly it is not helpful, but harmful.
BELIEFS THAT LEAD TO A PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE RESPONSE STYLE:
I shouldn’t have to be assertive; you should just know or if you loved me, I wouldn’t have to ask: This pattern of thinking is unhealthy on so many levels! It is a form of magical thinking to assume that others could know what I want without my having to tell them. It expects a level of “respect” from the other person that is unrealistic and unattainable and requires nothing from me in return. You are expected to read my mind and have a crystal ball that tells you what I want and need, and if that isn’t enough, you are expected to meet my every need – cheerfully, and if you don’t, I will be terribly upset with you. And you will just know that I am upset by the way I am acting. I shouldn’t have to tell you.
Acting assertively requires that we act on reality as it is, not as we think it should be or wish it were! In reality, no one can read another person’s mind or know what another person wants or needs without their having to communicate their wants and needs. Even if I think they should, the reality is that they don’t. It’s even a bit inconsiderate on my part to expect this of them.
When I depend on others to know what I need and want, and to meet my needs for me, I am putting myself in a position of helplessness, in which I am relying on another to do something for me that they are not capable of doing. I am not getting my needs met, and am blaming another for my unhappiness. I am abdicating my own responsibility to another, and getting mad at them for not doing what I won’t do for myself!
I can’t be assertive, because I might fail: You will fail, and that’s ok. Assertiveness is a set of skills that takes time and practice. Like any other experience in our lives, we learn from our failures and mistakes, and work to do better next time. It’s not an either/or thing in which we either are assertive or we are not. It’s not even about becoming more assertive. It is about using assertiveness skills more effectively in order to meet my needs more effectively.
BELIEFS THAT LEAD TO AN ASSERTIVE RESPONSE STYLE:
Because I am human, I have a right to:
- Have and express my own feelings and opinions.
- Refuse requests without feeling guilty or selfish.
- Set my own goals and make my own decisions.
- Ask for what I want (realizing that others have the right to say, “No.”)
- Assert myself.
- Choose not to assert myself.
- Be treated with dignity and respect.
- Be listened to and taken seriously.
- Make mistakes.
- Say “No.”
- Change my mind.
- Be illogical.
- Take my time and take time to think.
Others have the same rights.
More About Assertiveness
The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and in Relationships; Randy J. Paterson, Ph.D.; New Harbinger Publications, Inc; 2000
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
NDVH is a nonprofit organization that provides crisis intervention, information and referral to victims of domestic violence, perpetrators, friends and families.
Verbal Aggression in the Media and Politics
- Woman Up!
Consider the effects of verbal aggression and irrational thinking in the media and politics on the listening public.
© 2010 Kim Harris